Lady Windermere’s Fan
Reviewed – 23rd January 2018
“Samantha Spiro gives a glorious and dazzling portrayal”
By the end of the nineteenth century London publishing houses were awash with “fanologies”: more for the benefit of men on a quest to understand the ladies’ use of the fan and its coded language to convey messages. Combined with eye movements it was a fancy communication tool. The messages conveyed on the whole were those of love. It is no surprise then that it made its way into the title of Oscar Wilde’s 1890s comedy. Whilst its symbolic meaning may be partly lost on a modern audience, the central metaphors still ring true in Dominic Dromgoole’s revival of “Lady Windermere’s Fan” as part of the year long Oscar Wilde season at the Vaudeville.
Young, rich and happily married, Lady Windermere seemingly has it all. Until her husband invites a mysterious widow to her ‘coming of age’ birthday ball. Suddenly everything that she holds dear is in jeopardy. Mixing the comic and the serious, this dramatic technique makes it more interesting, and more full of intrigue, than Wilde’s later, more popular plays.
At the heart of this production are two of Britain’s female comic icons. Kathy Burke, who directs and who has gathered a top notch cast, and Jennifer Saunders who plays the gossip-mongering battleaxe Duchess of Berwick. To allay accusations of star casting, Saunders gives a generous performance and consciously refuses to steal the show (her character is gone by the end of the first act anyway). Yes, there are shades of “Ab Fab”, particularly in the way the character treats her daughter, but Saunders adds more depth here and ingeniously manages to make Wilde’s chiselled epigrams her own.
Grace Molony makes her West End debut as the eponymous Lady Windermere, and she is ‘looking at the stars’. A cool player, she commands the stage. Initially icy in her belief in moral absolutes, she is shaken by a sudden failure in trust caused by the Duchess maliciously yet deliciously leading her into thinking that her husband is having an affair with another woman; a Mrs Erlynne, played by Samantha Spiro giving a glorious and dazzling portrayal of perhaps the most multi-layered character in the piece. All the other characters act as though Mrs Erlynne should be ashamed of herself, yet Spiro plays her without shame. That her character feels so up to date is down to the fact that Wilde was writing before his time. He had the utmost respect for women. Spiro captures this quintessence, but then adds some. Her observations on how easily love can be capsized are heartfelt because she has the biggest heart of them all.
Despite all the right ingredients, though, the production does tread safe ground, but in doing so pays homage to the text, which is the real star of the show. Burke’s solid direction moves the piece along at a comfortable pace, unhindered by Paul Wills’ uncluttered but strikingly stylised set, except for a slightly odd musical interlude which, despite being a sharp-witted music hall pastiche penned by Burke herself, is out of place and too obvious a time-filler.
The energy does step up a notch in the second act and the chemistry between the characters strengthens. The scene where Mrs Erlynne persuades Lady Windermere to return to her husband is the highlight of the evening, and the heart of Wilde’s writing comes to the fore. Beneath the wit and the satire, it is what goes unsaid that matters most. This is perhaps Wilde’s play most overflowing with aphorisms, but between the lines, it is the play with the most compassion.
It attacks the un-navigable quagmire of the morals we are supposed to live by, but it does it with heart and humour.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Marc Brenner
Lady Windermere’s Fan
Vaudeville Theatre until 7th April