Classic Spring’s flawless production of Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy An Ideal Husband, directed by Jonathan Church with high Victorian sets by Simon Higlett is fresh from a well received West End run at The Vaudeville and currently plays at Theatre Royal Bath as part of Church’s vibrant Summer Season as Artistic Director.
Fizzing with wit and charisma from a suitably starry and flamboyant cast, adept at comic timing and wryness, Lizzi Gee’s choreographed opening dance scene, coupled with solo violinist (Samuel Martin) sets the scene of late 19th century London high society and all its hypocrisies and intrigues.
The audience are the bemused observers of the champagne-fuelled soiree of Member of Parliament, Sir Robert Chiltern (the highly adaptable Nathaniel Parker) and his wife Lady Chiltern (Sally Breton), taking place at their well appointed residence on Grosvenor Square. Allowing us a fascinating window into the heart of drawing room corruption through sharply delivered conversations, gossip and quips centring around apparently impeccable husbands and wives, followed by the consequences when they fall from grace, you can’t help but draw parallels with Wilde’s own history.
Written when the playwright was teetering on the verge of his own scandalous downfall, the naive Lady Chiltern, who unwisely places her husband on a pedestal is no doubt inspired by his own long suffering wife, Constance, who was forced to endure the bitter notoriety which afflicted the family when her husband’s homosexuality hit the headlines and led to his imprisonment. Despite the uncertainties of Wilde’s private life at the time, An Ideal Husband is one of his greatest achievements, with a rich collection of characters (you might almost call them caricatures) typical of his most brilliant writing.
Frances Barber reigns supreme as the arch manipulator, Mrs Cheveley, who, in attendance with the fickle, talkative Lady Markby (the hilarious Susan Hampshire), has just returned from Vienna in order to blackmail Chiltern with a compromising letter dating from the beginning of his career, and which has the potential to ruin his reputation and political career, not to mention his marriage.
In order to prevent Cheveley from carrying out her threat of taking the said document to the newspapers Chiltern is faced with backing a fraudulent business scheme in the House of Commons in which the lady has a financial interest, although he faces losing his moral high ground whichever way he turns. Does he suppress the report laying open the shortcomings of the venture or does he support it against his better judgement in order to continue in the position he has created for himself through deception?
Freddie Fox is commanding as Chiltern’s best friend, the dandy bachelor and general pleasure-seeking idler Viscount Goring, a young man always keen to avoid his father, The Earl of Caversham (his real life father Edward Fox) who is keen for him to marry and settle down. Before he can turn his thoughts to romance, however, he becomes embroiled in trying to find a solution to Chiltern’s awkward predicament, and having once had a liaison with Mrs Cheveley, he is the only one who knows how to corner her.
The two Foxes have a strong on stage familial rapport which belies their relationship in real life and is a joyful aspect of the casting. The elder Fox still displays an effortless magnetism, while the younger is as smooth and deliciously camp as his velvet smoking jacket, but whose immaturity and vanity eventually transmute into a surprisingly worldly, romantic and problem-solving figure, a transformation Freddie Fox pulls off with as much natural talent as you could expect from his standing within such a famous theatrical family. Thanks to Church’s confident direction, the misunderstandings, diplomacy and blackmail keeps us constantly enthralled, as does the sub-plot love story between Goring and Chiltern’s sister, Mabel Chiltern (Faith Omole), his sharp-tongued match. This is Wilde at his best. Could this be the ideal production?
An Ideal Husband at Theatre Royal Bath until 4 August 2018. Production images by Marc Brenner. For more information and tickets please visit the website.