Jennifer Saunders is the main name above the marquee in this revival of Oscar Wilde’s first hit and she gives a bracing turn, full of very Jennifer Saunders-like pauses and swooping double takes, and pursed lips, as the interfering Duchess of Berwick, happy to dispense advice and spread poison in the ear of the impressionable Lady Windermere.
Making her return to theatre, after a gap of two decades, she is extremely funny and entirely convincing as a woman who loves the sound of her own voice even if she is beginning to bore even herself. But this prototype Lady Bracknell barely appears in the first two acts and is entirely absent from the second (apart from an amusing parlour song). You miss her when she is not around.
Instead we are left with Mrs Erlynne, one of Wilde’s fallen women, who abandoned her child for love in her youth and now reappears in her life. That child is Lady Windermere, uptight and unsuspecting. Her husband Lord Windermere knows the truth and has paid Mrs Erlynne to keep her secret, his reward is that his wife thinks he is having an affair.
The plot has a few more twists and turns before it reaches its conclusion, but its tone is always marked by Wilde’s enormous humanity and care for women who "know what it is to fall into the pit" and who realise that one moment of madness can see them excluded from polite society for ever. It is also characterised by some of Wilde’s most famous lines, among them the crushing "crying is the refuge of plain women but the ruin of pretty ones" which Saunders delivers with a rueful truthfulness.
In directing this slightly abridged production, part of Dominic Dromgoole’s Wilde season, Kathy Burke makes some interesting and rewarding decisions. Paul Wills’ sets are simple and uncluttered while his costumes are silken confections. The dialogue has a directness and an eye for its broad comedy; it is not arch or mannered. The Windermeres really are young: Grace Molony, just out of drama school, is making her West End debut; the talented Joshua James makes her husband a worrier, trying to do the right thing, rather than a suave sophisticate.
Their servants all have personalities, including one called Parker (played by Matthew Darcy) who deliberately over-emphasises names in defiance of a patronising instruction, and sneaks a kiss with a male party guest when he thinks no-one is looking.
In the hands of comedian Kevin Bishop, Lord Darlington – deliverer of some indelible aphorisms including "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" – is not a practised seducer but a slightly bumbling berk. Joseph Marcell as the foolish Lord Lorton and Gary Shelford as a rich Australian, entirely at sea in British high society, both create amiably delineated characters, though the other men fade into a smart-talking blur. Samantha Spiro’s Mrs Erlynne is brave, brittle and unashamed.
It all feels quite fresh. But in playing so much for high farce, Burke loses the emotion that underlies the antics. There is no sense of the danger that being discovered in a man’s rooms could bring. The initial confrontation between mother and daughter, when one tries to save the other from following her path to ruin, is full of humour and comic business but Spiro only intermittently finds ways of expressing the feelings for her daughter that rise and surprise her and Molony remains a blank.
The great, underlying compassion of the play is lost in its social manners. It is an enjoyable revival, but not a wholly satisfying one.
Lady Windermere's Fan runs until 7 April.