Arthur Wing Pinero, a key figure in the modern British theatre, acted with Irving and launched issue-based social comedy alongside Shaw (who was always rather rude about him) in the shadow of Ibsen.
The Second Mrs Tanqueray was a sensation in 1893 but still resonates as a portrait of inequality in a marriage, especially as Paula Tanqueray comes with the additional baggage of being a woman with "A Past". Her new husband, Aubrey, is more worried about losing his male friends than keeping his new woman.
Stephen Unwin's revival is far more palatable than the National's revival 30 years ago, which revealed Felicity Kendal’s Paula as a stern-jawed, steely mannequin among a roomful of comic waxworks; but for all her simpering vitality and lustrous beauty, Laura Michelle Kelly is almost entirely out of period as the restless heroine. The stretch from Mary Poppins is just a little too far.
Partly this is Pinero's fault. Despite the richness of his story, and its melodramatic momentum, his writing is staid and starchy almost beyond redemption. Only the odd line leaps to life, such as the description of Aubrey’s first wife as cold and Catholic, “all marble arms and black velvet,” or the irritation caused by a squawking society dimwit: “I feel my nails growing longer with every word she speaks.”
Kelly does her best to compensate for the dated dullness, but she fails really to rise to the tragic grandeur of Paula’s last speeches, which describe the future as being only the past again, entered through another gate.
James Wilby's intellectually agile, puppy-like Aubrey tags along with a dapper determination, but the character's surprisingly too much of a cipher for so famous a play. Much needed colour comes from Joseph Alessi's boisterous confidant, Cayley Drummle, and Jessica Turner's imperiously interventionist Mrs Cotelyon.
The drama revolves around the fate of Aubrey’s daughter Ellean (attractively played by Rona Morison) by his first wife, who shakes off her convent chastity to create a flashpoint of jealousy and declare a romantic attachment to a dashing army captain (Adam Jackson-Smith) who coincidentally proves to be her stepmother's ex-lover.
But the play also flays the institution of marriage as a graveyard of sexual excitement and a hollow sham of respectability; it still looks and sounds curiously subversive in Unwin's carefully staged and silhouetted production, minimally but cleverly designed by Paul Wills, with good lighting and music by Mike Gunning and Corin Buckeridge.