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Woman of No Importance

By • West End
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The Theatre Royal Haymarket is no stranger to the work of Oscar Wilde. In 1893, the theatre hosted the premieres of A Woman of No Importance and An Ideal Husband, while in more recent years, Peter Hall has found success here with revivals of Husband and Lady Windermere's Fan, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson.

Now Woman returns to its birthplace care of a new midwife, former RSC artistic director Adrian Noble, who delivers Wilde's pithy social satire hot on the heels of Ibsen's relentlessly moralising epic drama Brand, with Ralph Fiennes in the title role at this same address.

As with Wilde's other plays, A Woman of No Importance takes place in the gilded world of 19th-century English aristocrats and seeks to expose the hypocrisies at the heart of their shallow society. In this case, the setting is Lady Hunstanton's country estate where, in between wooing the ladies, devilish Lord Illingworth is keen to appoint young Gerald Arbuthnot as his personal secretary, not realising that Arbuthnot is in fact his own illegitimate child. Will Mrs Arbuthnot reveal her scandalous secret and threaten her son's success?

Noble has cast his leads well - and somewhat daringly. Though Rupert Graves and Samantha Bond may be near the right ages of Illingworth and his former mistress, both appear much younger than we're accustomed to seeing in Wilde revivals. With his boyish good looks and Merchant Ivory pedigree, Graves could as easily play Gerald (an amiable Julian Ovenden) as his father, but his mature stance and casual wickedness see him through. Still more convincing is Bond, who, last seen opposite Sean Bean in Macbeth, brings a bit of her Lady M to the desperation and determination of Wilde's 'fallen' woman.

Elsewhere, Joanne Pearce is superb - the sexual frisson sparked between her wicked Mrs Allonby and Graves' intermittently attentive Illingworth makes you wish Wilde had written more exchanges for the pair - and Caroline Blakiston and Elizabeth Garvie display great brio as two society ladies.

Unfortunately, what should be the play's star comic turn, hostess Lady Hunstanton, is ill-rendered by Prunella Scales, an ordinarily reliable comedienne who, on this occasion, seems to have taken the character's absent-mindedness too much to heart. Try as she might, Rachael Stirling can't do much with the clichéd American sanctimony of "pretty prude" Hester Worsley either.

Wilde's wit is sometimes better served by a flick through a dictionary of quotations than yet another revival. Lines like "One should always be in love. That is the reason one should never marry" are indeed priceless but, in some scenes, his pronouncements - on the differences between men and women, the division of the classes, the secret of life and so on - come so thick and fast, you start to yearn for characters who simply speak to one another.

Still, Noble has lived up to his name with this effort. While the play may have dated, the production more than does it justice. An enjoyable evening.

- Terri Paddock


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