Oscar Wilde never wrote a play of this name – it’s actually a novella written before his first stage success with Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892. All credit then, to adapter Trevor Baxter and director Christopher Luscombe, for fashioning the tale into such an arresting entertainment.
The eponymous (anti) hero of Wilde’s page turner is a young aristocrat whose marriage to his beloved is threatened by a sinister prediction – he’ll commit murder. How can he know who his victim will be – perhaps even his beloved fiancée? Can he outrun fate by picking his own victim in his own time?
It’s entirely logical to fashion the production as a Victorian melodrama and Luscombe and his creative team play this one to the hilt. The footlights lit, the mood is instantly set as we spot, stage right, a latter-day flip chart, heralding each scene ‘A plot is hatched….’, ‘The die is cast ….’ The elegantly costumed violinist and pianist arrive on Alexander McPherson’s delightfully two-dimensional set, framed by curlicued proscenium, to strike up the authentic-sounding music (by Malcolm McKee) underscoring the action.
Yet the cast walk a precarious tight rope. They must play the melodrama convincingly, but Wilde’s emerging epigrammatic style requires light and knowing delivery. Moreover, Baxter links the scenes with lines from the harrowing Ballad of Reading Gaol – especially the refrain ‘each man kills the thing he loves’. Spoken by different characters, it’s essential they ring true.
The balancing act succeeds, largely thanks to John Sackville, excellent in the title role. It’s essential the audience identifies with him, sympathises with his predicament. Once he earns the right to quote those lines, the other elements fall into place.
Sara Crowe’s brittle Miss Sybil Merton, Savile’s intended, gives a hint of the Gwendolen to come. Susan Penhaligon’s Lady Windermere is perhaps more like the free spirit her namesake might become as she matured.
Royce Mills makes a splendid Dean – all gas and gaiters indeed – and Barry Howard a comically inept anarchist. Gay Lambert doubles effectively as sour maiden aunt and warbling songstress; Tom Jude skilfully as pianist and policeman – and Elisa Boyd, impressively as violinist and ASM.
To Russ Abbot falls the intriguing role of the clairvoyant Septimus Podgers, lionised by society (and such mystics might aspire to be the darlings of royalty). The comedy comes from constant threats to his authority – even from a virago of a wife offstage. His performance is just one of the highlights of this original evening.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at Theatre Royal, Windsor)