A Woman of No Importance

Oct 2 2019 | By More

★★★☆☆      Curiosity value

King’s Theatre: Tue 1 –Sat 5 Sept 2019
Review by Hugh Simpson

A Woman of No Importance, Classic Spring Company’s touring production at the King’s, is an accomplished piece of theatre whose stately nature contains little in the way of excitement.

This is a play that gets added to lists of Oscar Wilde’s works as an afterthought, and with good reason. It is by no means bad, but it takes an unconscionable time to get going, something not helped by the style of this production.

Mark Meadows, Tim Gibson and Katy Stephens. Pic: Robert Day

The first two acts are a showy, somewhat brittle take on late Victorian society, complete with plenty of Wildean aphorisms you probably didn’t realise originated here. The second half of the play deals with the caddish Lord Illingworth’s realisation that the affable young gentleman he has engaged to be his secretary is actually his son, born of an affair with a woman who now calls herself Mrs Arbuthnot.

While Illingworth has carried on in his own merry way, Mrs Arbuthnot has suffered for their joint indiscretion. This sets the scene for an examination of secrets and lies that is familiar from other works of Wilde, and which some see as coded comments on his own life. The subject matter definitely suggests that he had been watching Ibsen; however, the Norwegian giant’s chilly realism is here replaced by something more like Victorian melodrama.

It is all attacked with a will. Indeed, you rarely notice that at least half of the 14 characters on stage are dramatically unnecessary. Director Dominic Dromgoole’s Classic Spring has been set up with the stated aim of producing plays from the age of proscenium theatre in appropriate spaces, and there is no doubt that Jonathan Fensome’s sturdy sets are as solid as the rest of the production.

seasoned performer

That such lavish surroundings require considerable resetting does mean that there is a series of entr’acte entertainments, with Roy Hudd performing three music hall songs. Hudd, of course, knows more about the form than the rest of us put together, and it is a treat to see such a seasoned performer provide a link to a vanished age. He also plays the Reverend Daubeny with a puckish glee.

A scene from a Woman of No Importance. Pic: Robert Day

Indeed, the performers are largely impressive; Liza Goddard, as a society hostess, Isla Blair, as a domineering aristocrat and John Bett as her long-suffering husband turn in particularly well judged comic performances. Emma Amos gives the flirtatious Mrs Allonby a positively evil twinkle.

However, the characters who could give the play some profundity do not really manage to do so; not through faults of performance, but more because of the weaknesses of the material. To a modern audience, Lord Illingworth seems every inch the predatory upper-class man who believes his ‘charm’ insulates him from any consequences, which is a type we get quite enough of already. Mark Meadows nails the humour, but fails to suggest much depth.

overly pious

Katy Stephens gives Mrs Arbuthnot considerable emotional heft, helping avoid the most melodramatic excesses, and Tim Gibson makes her son Gerald oddly sympathetic. The only character allowed to criticise the foibles of the upper crust is the outsider, the young American Hester Worsley. Georgia Landers does her best in the role, but the character is overly pious, insufferably priggish and ultimately hard to credit.

Roy Hudd (centre). Pic: Robert Day

There is a reverence to the production, but little in the way of sparkle. At times it approaches the texture of a stuffily polite period drama. While it is interesting to see it, there is nothing here that suggest the play is undervalued, and it remains largely of value as a historical curiosity and a literary footnote.

Running time 2 hours 15 minutes including one interval
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven St, EH3 9LQ
Tuesday 1 – Saturday 5 October 2019
Daily at 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed and Sat at 2.30 pm
Information and tickets: Book here.

A Woman of No Importance on tour:
1 – 5 October Edinburgh
King’s Theatre
0131 529 6000 Book online
7 – 12 October Cambridge
Arts Theatre
01223 503333 Book online
21 – 26 October Perth
Perth Theatre
01738 621031 Book online
28 October – 2 November Guilford
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
01483 44 00 00 Book online
4 – 9 November Norwich
Theatre Royal
01603 63 00 00 Book online


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