Tuesday, February 01, 2011

FINALLY! My 2011 theatre-going duck has been broken. I knew there was a reason why I was feeling unduly jittery. It's been so long I had to think twice to make sure I was sitting in the seat properly. And what was the production that saw me back in the theatrical saddle? The rather underwhelming AN IDEAL HUSBAND at the Vaudeville Theatre.

I had wanted to see this for a while and, mindful that it was due to close in February, I booked two in the circle using a £10 off discount. Well, I'm not sure what the stalls were doing but my, we were an intimate collection of punters in the Dress - there were 5 of us in J row - and we were seated in seats 1-5! Needless to say there was much spreading out in the interval. In all other rows there were yawning spaces - between the yawning audience.

The production just feels tired, as if the cast had expended all energy in the months leading up to Christmas in the expectation that it would close early. But no, here we are in it's third month and it seemed to me that all the actors were appearing in different plays. If they had a cohesion under Lindsay Posner's direction initially it seems to have been given the go-by. I sat in my little seat in J row and pined for Oliver Parker's screen version - and I didn't expect to say that anytime soon.Oscar Wilde's play is certainly worth this timely revival with it's plot of a seemingly teflon-coated politician gliding his way slowly but surely up the parliamentary foodchain until confronted with evidence from his past which will ruin him if exposed. Peter Hall's acclaimed and long-running revival in the early 1990s also seemed au courant during the end of John Major's Conservative government. But I guess a politician with a secret is never going to be out of fashion - and in the week when it was announced that the Police were going to re-open the News Of The World phone-hacking case it was particularly thrilling to hear Robert Chiltern say "Spies are of no use nowadays... the newspapers do their work instead"!

What also struck me was how prophetic it was of Wilde's own destiny. The play premiered in January 1895 and only three months later Wilde was in court for the criminal libel charge he brought against the Marquise of Queensberry which led to his own trial for gross indecency and sodomy. Time and again in the play, the subject of a public figure ruined by scandal is raised and while watching it I could see Wilde at his writing desk writing a line, looking up, half-smiling and continuing on to possibly write:

Mrs Cheverley: Sir Robert, you know what your English newspapers are like. ... Think of their loathsome joy, of the delight they would have in dragging you down, of the mud and mire they would plunge you in. Think of the hypocrite with his greasy smile penning his leading article, and arranging the foulness of the public placard.

Oh Oscar you silly arse.What was so annoying about the production was the way all the performances - and accents - seemed to clash. From High Comedy to naturalistic, from idiosyncratic to BBC 3 sitcom there was no unity of style, time and again a character would come on stage and suddenly you are forced to adapt to a new acting style so you are never sure on which level the play truly sits.

Charles Kay is so busy with his harrumphing codger as Lord Goring's father that you can hear the rhythm of the accent while the actual words get lost in the bluster, Rachael Sterling as Lady Chiltern is so similar in her honking tone to her mother Diana Rigg that it keeps pulling focus and Fiona Button plays the Thoroughly Modern Miss that is Sir Robert's younger sister in the usual high-pitched voice that seems the default condescending accent now for The Ingenue. Of course one goes to a Wilde play to be pinioned by the darts of epigrammatic wit but here they are mostly confined to one very long second scene and all delivered by one character Lady Markby, played here by Caroline Blakiston. However as hers is such a one-note performance you begin to wonder is it ever going to end and it begins to resemble nothing more than the most hackneyed sitcom: line - line - joke, line - line joke.

Which brings me to Elliot Cowan as Lord Goring. In the role he was born to play Rupert Everett was sublime in the film version but here Cowan as Wilde's cynical playboy throws away one good laugh line after another by speaking in the most bizarre accent. I suspect that somewhere along the line he has heard the recording allegedly of Wilde reading THE BALLAD OF READING GAOL and has adopted the ew-sew mannered way of speaking with leeeengthened vowellls and what haeve yoooo that you want to punch him silent.
What makes this absurd is that he is the only one speaking like this and when he plays scenes with Alexander Hanson as Sir Robert, who speaks his lines in the most conversational way possible, it leaves you no way to just relax into the scene. Hanson is fine, but I joined Owen in wondering why he can't walk across a stage without skiffing the soles of his shoes. I kept expecting his blackmailed politician to break into a buck and wing.

Thank God for Samantha Bond! Although she appears to be channeling her frequent co-star Judi Dench vocally, she alone knows how to play High Comedy on stage while still creating a character with a possible internal life. Her sly and calculating Mrs. Cheverley was a pure delight and I pined for her when she was not onstage - Oscar you clown, why on earth did you not have her make an appearance in the final long-winded scene?

The supporting company all played the long party scene at the top of the play with an anonymity which almost had them semaphoring "don't worry, the stars will be on soon". One bright spot was Max Digby as Goring's manservant Phipps who got a bigger laugh with one line than Cowan managed with a whole speech.

Stephen Brimson Lewis can usually be relied upon for a glittery design but here we got a standing set of burnished gold which suggested that he too had seen MADAME DE SADE at the Wyndhams two years ago. Apart from his costumes for Mrs. Cheverley, the costumes for the women all looked like they were bolts of fabric ready to go back to Borovics in the morning.Oh well. Onwards and upwards into the theatreland of 2011....

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