Though crammed with the wittiest of bon mots, Oscar Wilde’s play is more Prosecco than Champagne. And, without Samantha Spiro, this fizzing revival might well have fizzled out.
Kathy Burke’s production — the second in the Vaudeville’s season of Wilde revivals — is brimful of sparkly comedy turns, most notably Jennifer Saunders as the haughty Duchess of Berwick delivering the kind of performance that makes you wonder why on earth she doesn’t do more stage work.
Her duchess personifies the definition of scandal declared by one of the minor aristos here: gossip made tedious by morality. And, true to that form, she flusters the hitherto serene Lady Windermere (an excellent Grace Molony) with news that her husband — a po-faced Joshua James — has been seen fraternising with the mysterious Mrs Erlynne (Spiro).
This is the kind of plot the relies heavily on misunderstandings not being corrected at the glaringly convenient first opportunity. But with judicious cutting Burke ensures that the action moves fast enough to prevent the suspension of disbelief from becoming tiring. The director also comes up with a clever way of keeping Saunders on stage with a bawdy little number (written by Burke) which the Ab-Fab star sings (actually speaks) as a kind of smutty music-hall filler during one of the scene changes.
Meanwhile, the always impressive Kevin Bishop as the manfully moustached but very silly Lord Darlington reveals an undercurrent of decency to this toff. It is Spiro, who can do comedy camp with the best of ’em, who injects the evening with a crucial dose of dramatic heft. The scene in which her worldly Mrs Erlynne saves Lady Windermere from a life of notoriety is genuinely moving. The unexpected result is that Wilde’s playful approach to gender politics holds up a gilt-framed mirror to today’s attempts to end gender injustice.