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This production of Lady Windermere’s Fan follows the acclaimed run of A Woman of No Importance at the end of 2017 and forms part of the Vaudeville Theatre’s ongoing season of Oscar Wilde plays.
Similarly to many of Wilde’s classics – most notably his masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest, which will also be produced later this year as part of the same season – Lady Windermere’s Fan borrows themes from Victorian melodrama and is choked full of moralism, social expectations, limitations and class divides.
Overall, there’s a certain charm to proceedings, imbued by the sumptuous costumes, period setting and timely, pithy dialogue.
However, despite its obvious retro charm, director Kathy Burke has also discovered a kernel of modernity in the play’s themes and sensibilities – most notably how it focuses on empowering young women in a patriarchal society, and explores the concept of loyalty between man and wife, especially when society looks at the woman as the property of her husband.
And it’s the women who certainly come off best here – which can’t be a coincidence with Burke at the helm.
Samantha Spiro, as the mysterious Mrs Erlynne, oozes charm and sophistication. Even as she’s painted as something of a harlot at the centre of gossip and suspicion from the other high society women, she continues to carry with her a constant air of charisma and desirability.
Later, when her regretful past comes to light, this shifts to reveal a previously unknown capacity for self-sacrifice, and her graciousness becomes etched with a sadness that’s hard to define – it makes for quite the evolution of character.
Elsewhere, Grace Molony – as the titular Lady Windermere – may start out a little snobbish, but by the third act she’s matured into a young woman who has become well aware of the struggles that face women of her era. It’s a stark contrast to the likes of fellow socialites Lady Jedburgh, Lady Plymdale and Lady Stutfield, who all stay stoic to society’s pull ,and continue to play on their coquettishness until the final curtain.
It is Jennifer Saunders though, as the infallible Duchess of Berwick, who steals the show. Similarly to the much-adored Lady Bracknell in Earnest, Berwick is an older woman, bound by the conventions of her class until the very end.
She might be desperate to marry off her simpering, near-mute daughter Lady Agatha, for instance, but when her chosen suitor offers to take Agatha back to Australia with him, Berwick is hysterical, inconsolable. All well and good to find a decent marriage, but far be it a match that highlights the cruel undertones of society’s treatment of women and their place as the property of a good husband, for there’s nothing that not even Berwick can do about that.
Burke gives Saunders – who returns to the West End stage for the first time in 20 years – the biggest laugh of the night with the cheeky inclusion of a witty music hall number about sexual predators (quite befitting the current political climate). It’s gleefully performed, and is such a laugh-out-loud, rousing moment that its almost worth the ticket price alone.
The men offer a different take, subdued by the likes of Mrs Erlynne and their feisty spouses. Kevin Bishop gets the most fun as Lord Darlington, the whimpering aristocrat who falls in love with Lady Windermere the moment he lays eyes on her at her birthday party.
He, of course, gets the most famous line of the play – “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” – but he’s given a run for his money by the marvelous David O’Reilly as Cecil Graham, raconteur and chief gossip, who sets the denouement in motion when he discovers the “fan” of the title at Lord Darlington’s house, sparking intrigue and suspicion about the true innocence of Lady Windermere.
It’s this running thread of deception and misunderstanding that drives the play forward, but, ultimately, it’s the surprising revelations of Mrs Erlynne (and her development into a rueful, truly modern woman) that really define the show.
Lady Windermere’s Fan runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until 7 April 2018. Get your tickets now at Ticketmaster.co.uk.