This is the second play in Dominic Drumgoole’s Oscar Wilde season in the West End and it is directed by Kathy Burke. I attended this production with some trepidation because, although I really admire Oscar Wilde and find him very witty; his plays are full of arch bon mots, but this can make his characters cool and short on compassion. I often find myself laughing at what they say but I have little empathy for their plight.
However, Kathy Burke really brings out the difference between how the actions of men and the actions of women were perceived, by society, at the turn of the last century. She makes us aware of how sympathetic Oscar Wilde was to that difference. He demonstrates real dexterity in pinpointing this and he mocks it mercilessly. This is a modern take on a play that is ultimately about the empowerment of women. Sam Spiro is excellent as Mrs Erlynne, the unrepentant scarlet woman, she perfected the brittle, sharp exterior protecting her secret and the emotions she did not wish to show.
Jennifer Saunders plays The Duchess of Berwick, in full-on dame mode. She sails into each scene with a new wonderful hat, drops her witty insights, sows the seeds of anarchy, and sails off. A wonderfully written cameo role, beautifully delivered.
It is the men in this play who are shallow. They are the real figures of fun, Joshua James is good as the insecure but supportive Lord Windermere. Kevin Bishop is excellent as Lord Darlington; charming and in love, but likely untrustworthy. The scene with all the male characters, drunk, in the library is well done and very funny. This play is so full of famous lines that occasionally it feels like a litany of Wildean quotations.
The set is cleverly done, all pastels and relatively simple, with echoes of the titular fan throughout – the shape of the windows and even the motif on the stage curtains. This is in contrast to the costumes. The men are formal, I am convinced that Lord Darlington and Jacob Rees-Mogg have the same butler. The ladies are dressed in full rich concoctions designed to demonstrate a time when it was more important to show off ones wealth than ones taste.
Being a play in four acts, there is an entr’acte between the first and second and between the third and fourth. These were not written by Wilde and they felt out of place, the humour was crude by comparison, but they were common at the time of writing and it did give the production a period feel.
This was a very good production of a sparkling play, it made me see Wilde’s writing in a new light and I am looking forward to seeing the others in this promising season.
24 years on is a difficult time at which to attempt the revival of a play. It’s long enough ago for the jokes and attitudes to appear dated and out of touch, yet not distant enough for us to see the play as an interesting period piece, or for us to indulge the mores of a different society.
This show has a great cast and they perform very well. The play itself has not aged well. The storyline and many of the lines feel old, the characters are not developed. The female roles in particular are one dimensional stereotypes – the hysterical woman desperate for a baby and the flirtatious, glamorous eye candy. There is an inherent sexism throughout the play that is uncomfortable to sit through now.
The male characters are caricatures too and we have come to expect more subtlety from the dialogue. The parts of the play that set out to shock us are no longer outrageous, the tasteless joke was neither shocking nor funny and the nudity was superfluous.
The acting was of a very high standard though, you could tell that Steve Pemberton loved the play and Ralf Little and Katherine Parkinson were a joy to watch.
It is very possible that in another 25 years this play will be an antique heirloom but currently, it is just out dated and out of fashion.
This is the centenary tour of Hobson’s Choice, but I have to say that it doesn’t show its age. Martin Shaw is very good in the title role, it requires a blustering, exaggerated performance and you can see he is enjoying himself here.
Really though, the play is all about Maggie. Naomi Frederick is excellent, she plays it totally straight and carries it off perfectly. Bryan Dick puts in a great performance as Willie, his transformation is both funny and credible.
The sets are relatively simple but beautifully made, and the direction is uncomplicated. They allow the real stars of the show to shine through and they are the words. It is a fantastically written comedy drama, with great individual lines and genuinely funny characters. It is easy to see why it is still regularly produced even one hundred years after it was written. This is a production by people who really love Harold Brighouse’s play and that care shines through on the stage.