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Theatre / Review
Kicking off a new Oscar Wilde season at the Vaudeville Theatre, A Woman of No Importance is a stunning new production starring Eve Best and Anne Reid.
Generally speaking, Wilde’s plays tend to have a timeless quality to them, and A Woman of No Importance is no exception.
The themes the play deals with must have felt quite progressive when it was first written; certainly, they still feel remarkably prevalent for a modern audience today.
At its core, A Woman of No Importance deals with attitudes to relationships within high society – particularly those of young women and the need to find a husband. In turn, Wilde’s play is a striking celebration of female equality. This is feminism.
The narrative focuses on Mrs Arbuthnot – played here by the always magnificent Eve Best – an unmarried woman, who claims to be widowed and leads an uncharacteristically reclusive life.
She is forced to attend a party at her neighbour’s English country home when her son is offered a job as a secretary to the mysterious, caddish Lord Illingworth, who is staying there.
Arbuthnot’s arrival at the house sets in motion a series of events that change everything, and reveals the secrets behind her lonely, hidden existence.
Alongside Arbuthnot – who is proof that no woman needs a man to get by – it is the ladies of the piece who really make it. And Wilde is wonderful at writing for women (see: Earnest’s Lady Bracknell).
There’s Lady Caroline Pontefract, who’s ideal is that a husband’s job is to look after his wife, and whose husband, Sir John, is very much at her beck and call.
Lady Stutfield is the coquettish debutante, blindsided by society’s attitudes to love and marriage. Mrs Allonby has a more progressive way of thinking, she’s sexy, seductive and clever – and knows how to use her feminine charms to manipulate men.
Hester Worsley, visiting from America, is probably the most forward-thinking of all. She’s desperate to impress the idea that British sensibilities about finding a husband are outdated and churlish, and she rubs up her female companions in all sorts of ways because of it.
Ultimately though, it’s our hostess, Lady Hunstanton, played by the incomparable Anne Reid, who steals the show.
Her attitudes are so steeped in tradition that she fails to see the chaos that is building around her; instead preferring to just try and keep everyone happy, whether by serving fresh lemonade on the terrace or performing another after-dinner song.
Overall the play is a triumph. It’s witty and glittering, and feels warming and familiar – like a Sunday night TV drama. Wilde’s dialogue is simply charming, biting in places and full of melodrama, perfect for the narrative it spins.
It looks wonderful too. The Vaudeville’s comparatively small stage is ideal for the single-set locations of each act, and the party – once all the guests have arrived – feels suitably busy and alive on the stage.
Later in the season, the theatre will welcome Lady Windemere’s Fan (starring Jennifer Saunders and directed by Kathy Burke) and Wilde Creatures (a family show exploring the characters of Wilde’s classic fairy tales); next year, iconic plays The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband will also receive revivals – a fact surely to delight even the most die hard Wilde aficionado.
For now though, A Woman of No Importance is the perfect antidote to dark wintry nights. And while existing fans of the great playwright’s work are sure to be delighted here, it’s also a charming introduction for anyone who is yet to get acquainted with Wilde. Or, simply, if you’re missing a bit of Downton Abbey and dowager sass in your life.
A Woman of No Importance is now running at the Vaudeville Theatre. Get your tickets now at Ticketmaster.co.uk.