Brighton Year-Round 2019
Directed by Dominic Dromgoole, this revival of the 2017 Vaudeville production is again designed by Jonathan Fensom who supplies costumes too, lit by Paul Russell with sound design by Carolyn Downing. Jason Carr’s the music supervisor for the Victorian music-hall turns sung and performed instrumentally by four of the cast. Till September 28th then touring.
You’ve heard some of them before – Wilde recycled his jokes with a promiscuity that ought to have shocked 1890s society even more than the sexual lapses in A Woman Of No Importance.
Luckily Dominic Dromgoole’s 2017 Vaudeville production of the first of its four revivals of Wilde’s mature comedies is getting recycled, sorry, revived too. It’s a new cast, but scoring the same solid virtues as the Vaudeville series.
Wilde’s play – about how a woman protects her son from the abusive man who’s really the boy’s father – was revolutionary for 1892. In mantling the mother, Mrs Arbuthnot, in linings of melodrama Wilde attempted to forestall outrage as he broke new ground. Bernard Shaw noting this was able to build rather differently two years later in Mr Warren’s Profession. By comparison Wilde’s sentimental gambits and scenes edged with mawkish outbursts might pall occasionally: but it was he who took risks first.
The play’s a curious winding-in from a witty conversation-piece to powerful melodrama (indeed later guyed by Wilde himself in John Worthing’s mistaking Miss Prism for his mother in The Importance of Being Ernest).
We’re at the Hunastons, hosted by Liza Goddard’s elegant Lady Hunaston. We start with badinage in secondary characters – led off by Isla Blair’s Lady Caroline permanently hunting up her dithery husband John Bett who charmingly eludes her (shades of Boucicault’s London Assurance), as he seems increasingly talented at ending up far away ambling with young women, like Meg Coombs’ accommodating Lady Stutfield, someone born to be an echo chamber.
There’s Emma Amos’ dangerously fascinating, amoral Mrs Allonby – part siren, part sibyl. She herself seems fascinated by resident immoralist Mark Meadows’ urbane, faintly sneering Lord Illingworth. Between them they spout most of the epigrams, including one which comes back to haunt Illingworth: ‘Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; rarely, if ever do they forgive them’ – a harsher version of a Portrait of Dorian Gray bon mot. Here though it gains superb point at its second appearance.
The production’s again designed by Jonathan Fensom whose sets – the outside of a country house from the rear, an interior drawing room then far smaller reception room belonging to Mrs Arbuthnot with French windows – are lovingly detailed. Fensom supplies costumes too, and it’s tenebrously lit by Paul Russell with sound design by Carolyn Downing; birdsong blasts at sudden moments. Jason Carr’s the music supervisor for the Victorian music-hall turns sung and performed instrumentally by four of the cast.
Illingworth’s grooming young Gerald Arbuthnot, in Tim Gibson’s fresh ardent, believable portrayal of a young man both in love and offered a dream job, as Illingworth’s secretary, all at 20. Too good to be true?
Georgia Landers, American puritan Miss Hester Worlsey, is Gerald’s love-interest. Landers convinces you of her initial moral stiffness, indeed hectors in her big hectoring speech. Later there’s a powerful release.
This languid atmosphere is shocked in the arrival of Gerald’s mother, Katy Stephens’ sterling-voiced Mrs Arbuthnot. She enters curiously with her hair down (that alters later) but her energy and vocal register seem forged from slicing through a world to survive. Stephens commands each scene she’s in, even when lurking stage left. Her private dealings with Meadows’ Illingworth move from scorn to sudden soft pleading to a ghost of sexiness to ferocity. Meadows brings out the icy sexual abuser his character is: this isn’t caddishness, it’s #MeToo territory
Stephens might occasionally seem too strong for someone prone to read colonial bishops (as visiting nosy friends note) but as we move to the melodramatic heart, with confrontations, abjurations, secret listenings-in and blurtings-out, Stephens and indeed Landers grow in stature in a climactic scene.
Similarly, it’s not just the one-liners on parliament that seem curiously relevant. Landers makes us see the way American women marrying into the British upper classes appear as both promissory note and threat, puritan and purveyor. The 1890s had seen two decades of American heiresses rescue and absorb bankrupt earls. We seem to have forgotten how relaxed we once were with it.
There’s fine physical work from Will Kelly’s terminally drunk Lord Alfred Rufford, often tangled with a deckchair. He’s also one of a scene-change musical performing team playing guitar, also comprising Tom Jude’s Reverend Daubery (with his running gags enumerating his wife’s legion of ills) and Rachel Essex’s Alice on accordion, with Gibson on trumpet.
This isn’t perhaps as fine as Wilde’s first comedy, Lady Windemere’s Fan, which sets up a similar scenario with a daughter. Like that play it’s too rarely performed. But it’s a brave work which almost rescues itself from its own small creaks and lurches. And though there’s a little unevenness in the new cast’s performances, this is a sovereign cast-bronze production.