As I take my seat in The Strand’s Vaudeville Theatre (one of the few London theatres that doesn’t seem to have paint peeling off every wall and ceiling) there is a buzz of excitement bouncing off the enclosed walls. Myself and the rest of the punters are all here to see Kathy Burke’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s hugely popular comedy Lady Windermere’s Fan. Originally premiered in 1892, the piece is a comedy of morales. It has that distinct Wilde trait of being exceptionally easy to follow, yet using words in a way that most of us could only dream of putting onto paper with such ease.
With a capacity of just short of 700 people, the theatre is intimate and charming – like foreplay in a thatched cottage. Having sat in the bar for 30 minutes, every face seems familiar, and even the director is treading up and down the dress circle like an attentive usher. The whole thing feels exclusive, yet totally accessible. I’m a lover of contradiction.
As the curtain lifts, we are presented with a minimal stage containing about as much furniture as a student’s living room. During the first act, it becomes apparent that the stage direction is in thirds. Main action and plot points happen at the front of the stage, supporting action at the centre, and the small but finishing details often take place silently out on the terrace, which is placed behind an opaque window at the rear of the stage (apart from the third act which takes place in Lord Darlington’s rooms, where the window is replaced by a closed curtain).
The casting is exceptional. Grace Moloney plays a perfect Lady Windermere; naive and wide-eyed at first, then quickly becoming stroppy and short (sort of like Donald Trump’s rise to power). The beauty of the Vaudeville Theatre is that you never miss an actor’s expression, and Moloney has a dulux colour chart of them. It’s very easy to act to the first few rows – the only people who buy binoculars nowadays are bird watchers and stalkers – but to act from row A to the grand circle takes confidence and skill. Every cast member delivers to the entire theatre like a pro.
Other notable castings include much loved national treasure Jennifer Saunders as the witty and room-filling Duchess of Berwick. Her performance is comedic and animated but also very poignantly respectful. It could be very easy for Saunders to steal the crowd, but her performance leaves room for the lesser known cast members to shine with her support. She, much like Moloney, has a face of 1000 faces, and sometimes her expression is funnier than the line itself. A notable moment (not to spoil, of course) is an immensely funny musical interlude which stars the Duchess singing a jaunty tune written by Kathy Burke herself. Be warned, however, as it will be in your head for a fair few hours afterwards.
David O’Reilly is a perfect Cecil Graham, Joseph Marcel is delightful as Lord Augustus, and Kevin Bishop delivers a wonderful interpretation of Lord Darlington. But, this is Wilde – it’s all about the words – and one cast member who truly does them justice is Samantha Spiro as Mrs Erlynne. Her timing is impeccable, and she adds depth and personality to a character who is rarely portrayed as any more than problematic and transparent.
Kathy Burke’s interpretation of this classic play is exceptional. To keep people of all ages laughing in their seats at a play well past it’s centenary takes more than just a great script – it takes a talented and confident director. Burke delivers that and much more, playing to each actor’s strengths and ensuring that the spotlight is shared.
Lady Windermere’s Fan is playing at the Vaudeville Theatre until the 7th of April as part of the Oscar Wilde Season. Still to come in the season are runs of An Ideal Husband, The Selfish Giant (adapted by Guy Chambers), and the infamous The Importance of Being Earnest.
So if you’re tempted, I’d say go and and book yourself tickets. After all, in the words of Lord Darlington himself:
“I can resist everything except temptation”.