An Ideal Husband @ Chichester Festival Theatre
Chichester Festival Theatre end their excellent 2014 season with a star-studded classic. After a number of daring new plays and powerful renditions of old musicals An Ideal Husband takes us into winter with a cosy warmth like finding a favourite old jumper at the back of the wardrobe. Every crease and hole is well known, but comforting it it’s familiarity.
As always with Oscar Wilde there is a battle of style versus substance, pithy one liners bubble over, often at the expense of plot or pace. I love the man’s wit but for all that he is revered in many quarters he’s also (rightly) held up by many for the pomposity of his prose.
Many of the lines here read a lot better on the page than they sound spoken out loud and even some of the veteran performers stumble over the odd line. The plot centres on Sir Robert Chiltern, a rising politician noted for his righteousness and honesty. We find him hosting a party to which the mysterious Mrs Cheveley arrives to blackmail him by revealing to the world the skeletons in his closet. It’s a simple plot and a humorous satire on politicians who put themselves on pedestals. Lady Markby remarks that “Really, now that the House of Commons is trying to become useful, it does a great deal of harm”. It’s a droll line that sums up the political slant of the play.
As always Wilde’s work rises and falls based on the performances contained therein and this production is propelled (and occasionally propped up) by two wonderful veterans of the stage! Patricia Routledge, at 85, is slow to move about the stage but delivers bon mots with relish and despite a slight stumble shows her younger colleagues just how to captivate an audience. Edward Fox is, well… Edward Fox. Delivering lines in his characteristic drawl at times the exact words are lost but the point is always clear. He carries an otherwise lacklustre final act and his stoic resignation over his son’s depravity is beautifully played.
Robert Bathurst plays Sir Robert as a brow beaten soul and his moping as he realises public shame is imminent seems a touch out of place, perhaps because Bathurst himself is almost half as old again as the character he plays. As the scheming Mrs Cheveley Jemma Redgrave falls a little flat. Her delivery is understated and her gestures and movement a little too subtle. It’s a solid performance, though at times she appears to be in a different production to her cast mates. As they relish Wilde’s dialogue she consistently down plays it.
One can’t help but wonder whether she would have been better served swapping roles with the delightful Laura Rogers who makes the prim and proper Lady Chiltern (who is remarkably dull on the page) into a fully rounded character who seems more real than those around her.
The centre piece of the production though is Jamie Glover who relishes every quip and who so thoroughly channels the attitude of Wilde himself that he seems to loom over every moment. Handsome, dashing and wonderfully verbose, he seems at first to be no more than a dandy but soon reveals himself quite the smartest character in the play. His ongoing flirtations with the vivacious Mabel Chiltern (Amy Morgan) are a continued delight with some of Wilde’s best wordplay and genuinely touching warmth.
This then is not a perfect production, though it is an opulent one, from the casting, to Wilde’s words to the sumptuous set, partially recycled from previous shows (particularly the shining black beams and floor of Amadeus) and put to great use. If you love Wilde you’ll find much to enjoy here. If however you are yet to be convinced this show won’t sway you.