Leicester Haymarket
Opened 1 May, 1997

To see one superficial production of Wilde in a given week may be excused; to see two feels like hopelessness. Coming hard on the heels of the Chichester opening of an unexceptional Lady Windermere's Fan (reviewed on Thursday), Paul Kerryson's Leicester presentation of A Woman Of No Importance induced just such a feeling in me.

Like Richard Cottrell in Chichester, Kerryson is concerned with how his production looks and sounds rather than what it says or feels; but where Cottrell at least foregrounded the drawing-room comedy, the seriousness which encroaches upon A Woman Of No Importance eventually deprives Kerryson even of this resort. He opts instead for cold, brittle poise throughout. When Lady Hunstanton and her female guests, each dressed in a white gown, trade witticisms in Act Two, the impression is of a confluence of glaciers at play. Even the confrontation which climaxes the first half, between Shirley Stelfox's Mrs Arbuthnot and Richard Willis as Lord Illingworth, the secret father of her son, is dominated by control and propriety rather than charged emotion; young Gerald Arbuthnot's later lunge at Illingworth, which causes his mother to blurt out the truth about his parentage, is pitifully stilted and quite passionless.

Actress and impressionist Janet Brown is not so much playing Lady Hunstanton as wearing her ladyship's costumes and "doing" a blend of personages: the Queen seems to form the basis of her performance, with hints of Margaret Rutherford and Wendy Hiller (though, thankfully, a complete absence of her revered Margaret Thatcher). Despite their respective stints upon the moral soapbox, Fo Cullen and Edmund Moriarty are little more than ciphers as young lovers Hester Worsley and Gerald even Cullen's American accent is an all-purpose, regionless drawl.

Paul Farnsworth's design is similarly cavernous, topped off with meaningless and even incomprehensible touches: it is all very well to surmount one of the huge, mirrored double doors with a gilt figure of a reclining Wilde, but why fly in what appears to be a twelve-foot portrait of the author in a summer frock? Wilde revelled, of course, in glittering surfaces, but never neglected what lay beneath them; Kerryson's production, all cool veneer, locks up the play's deeper content, leaving us with little but hollow theatrical ritual.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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