As in A Woman of No Importance which came before in Classic Spring’s Wilde season, Lady Windermere’s Fan demonstrates an understanding of women trying to find their place in a male-led world. The 21-year-old Lady Windermere develops from a puritanical innocent to someone who realises that conventional black-and-white morality is little use in the face of real life, while the scheming Mrs Erlynne arrives on the scene to worm her way back into society but unlocks emotions she didn’t know she had.
As ever, there is a touch of Victorian melodrama to the plot but Wilde cleverly undermines the form’s simple moralities with humour and a more liberal tone of tolerance and empathy. Grace Molony, in only her second professional stage role after attending Lamda, shines through in the often uninspiring role of Lady Windermere, proving her to be one to watch. Samantha Spiro plays Mrs Erlynne with persuasive charm and a steeliness that poignantly melts into the shock of feelings she has long suppressed.
Kevin Bishop puts a hilarious spin on young Lord Darlington, making you feel the full agony of his desire for Lady Windermere but also laughing at his lovelorn sulks and posturing. Joshua James makes the best of the priggish Lord Windermere while Joseph Marcell, David O’Reilly, Natasha Magigi and the rest of the top-rate cast keep the Wilde laughter machine well oiled, even down to Matthew Darcy and Ami Metcalf as amusingly petulant servants.
For many, the star of the show will be Jennifer Saunders who is sublime as bossy mother and society arbiter, the Duchess of Berwick. With a sideways glance or a well-timed expression, she finds comedy in nearly every line, and beyond, under Burke’s finely tuned direction. As the Duchess does not return in the second half of the play, she makes an extra front-of-cloth appearance between acts three and four, in a similar style to Anne Reid’s Lady Hunstanton in Classic Spring’s A Woman of No Importance. She performs a delightful and very funny comic song written by Burke with composer and musical director Shane Cullinan, accompanied by members of the cast on cello, guitar, concertina and triangle. Inspired by the sing-along hits of music hall, this fits perfectly within a production where, instead of privately speaking their inner thoughts to themselves, characters break through the fourth wall and address the audience with their moral dilemmas. It all helps to make this an engaging and highly entertaining production where the only disappointment is that sometimes the raucousness of the laughter obscures the next line.
Originally published on BritishTheatre.com.