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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at The Vaudeville


  Samantha Bond and Alexander Hanson/ Ph: Nobby Clark

This is the ideal production of a play that debunks the notion of the ideal. Oscar Wilde’s 1895 comedy may have opened just weeks before The Importance of Being Earnest, but Lindsay Posner’s fizzing production reveals the slightly older offering to be utterly contemporary.
At its core is a performance by Elliot Cowan that, when compared to his smouldering Stanley Kowalski in the Donmar Warehouse’s recent Streetcar, reveals an extraordinary acting range. There are light years between Tennessee Williams’ brute and Oscar Wilde’s fop, yet Cowan bridges the gap with a mesmerising performance that embraces superciliousness, flirts with silliness and then arrives at hangdog humility.
As the Viscount-about-town, Cowan is impeccable – impeccably dressed, impeccably superior, impeccably spoken, and just when you think that combining moral and fibre are beyond this pleasure-seeker, he turns out to be impeccably behaved, too. No wonder Posner’s production, both in play and curtain call, places Cowan’s Viscount centre stage.
He is more central even than the always-solid Alexander Hanson, who plays the title role of Sir Robert Chiltern, a politician of towering repute. It is well known that Chiltern's every decision, whether in private or public, is made on principle alone. His puritanical Lady wife (Rachel Stirling) would not have it any other way.
Set in a series of sumptuous gilt interiors (design Stephen Brimson Lewis), Wilde’s satire is just as cutting on political life as it is on high society. Hypocrisy is always the target here and Chiltern’s is exposed by an agonising dilemma given him by Samantha Bond’s seductive Mrs Cheveley. Chiltern must declare in parliament his backing for a Suez-style but fraudulent canal project in which Cheveley has invested but which Chiltern has already conspicuously derided. If he refuses, she will make public a letter that proves the unimpeachable Chiltern made his fortune by selling a state secret.
All of which comfortingly chimes with today’s real-life parliamentarians who still have to wipe the mud from their reputations after a recent expenses scandal.
The genius of Cowan’s performance is that with every turn he disproves his father’s oft-repeated observation about his son’s heartlessness. Also outstanding is Fiona Button as the Viscount’s match in wit and romance. As the pious Lady Chiltern, Stirling – looking a lot like her mother Diana Rigg – is cleverly more naïve than unforgiving in the play’s most unsympathetic role.
Posner’s previous West End production was Miller’s A View From A Bridge, which was pitched at exactly the right level of heightened tragedy.
Revivals of Wilde are often unremittingly arch in tone, making it almost impossible to care about the fate of privileged classes. But here Posner guides us with astounding assurance through almost every dramatic form – the comedy of social manners, beautifully rendered moments of farce, the demands of Wilde’s vaulting language and the disarmingly sober turns that explore where hypocrisy and humanity overlap. A real treat.

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