Liza Goddard and Roy Hudd – photo Robert Day
If Oscar Wilde were alive today he would have much to say about the progress, and lack of it, of many issues of importance in the field of human relationships. His views were ahead of his time, and he paid a high price for his divergence.
Listening to a Wilde play is a joy enhanced by constant recognition of phrases that have fallen into common use in many ways – you will find many a quip in this text that you recognise from several uses.
Our apparent familiarity with his quotable lines suggests a prolific playwright, but in fact Wilde only wrote a handful, as his mercurial star rose and fell in short order. A Woman of No Importance was written in 1892, but within eight years he was imprisoned, disgraced and dead at an early age from meningitis. We can only dream about what a fuller life might have achieved.
For this play Wilde created a busy stage with fourteen separate characters, giving us a bit of a challenge at first to try and recognise each. It takes a while to grasp the key characters and distinguish them from those who add enjoyable vignettes that may not be central to the plot. Given my recent play viewing history it is however relaxing to see a production where actors do not embrace a multitude of roles but plough firmly on with their allotted character.
The ironic title fails to disguise that this play is all about women, their attitudes to each other and to the men given an apparent dominance by society during one of the longest reigns of any queen ever.
There are many fine performances from a very well chosen cast in this production, but one actor lifts this from a good presentation to an absolutely exceptional theatrical event. Director Dominic Dromgoole has engaged Roy Hudd to play the relatively minor character the Reverend Daubeny, but in recognition of Hudd’s amazing career he also uses his fine music hall skills to present an appropriate song in the three scene change gaps that the script offers. The audience are delighted by these ‘entr’acte’ songs which fit the Wilde script far better than we might expect. Hudd is 83 and a half, but retains perfect timing and an uncanny ability to engage an audience.
Other cast members have a distinguished record too, including Liza Goddard as Lady Hunstanton, a role that suits her well. For me two performances stand out, as they are given the weight of the plot to convey – Katy Stephenson as Mrs Arbuthnot, a single mother in an hostile environment and Mark Meadows as the villainous hedonist Lord Illingworth, who after appointing Gerald Arbuthnot (Tim Gibson) as his private secretary learns that his mother Mrs Arbuthnot has good reason to oppose this employment.
This is a competent and accomplished production that takes a Wilde classic and presents it straight up with no gimmick or reworking, but adds the joyful front of curtain moments that remind us of the prodigious talent of Roy Hudd. This will be a long-remembered production, partly for the overall competence of acting and direction, but most fondly for a chance to enjoy the skills and presence of Roy Hudd. It is a play about women and their many different perceived roles in Victorian society, and it is the women who resolve the tensions in the plot and show us the way forward. This is one not to miss.
© Julian Swainson 2019
A Woman of No Importance plays until Saturday October 9th at Norwich Theatre Royal. For more info or to BOOK ONLINE www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk