A Woman of No Importance review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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Eve Best lends some steel to this classic Oscar Wilde comedy

I have a long and boring theory that Oscar Wilde’s once dazzling body of work has lost its sparkle because it spawned so many lesser imitators, notably the endlessly repeated BBC class sitcoms of the ’70s and 80s.

But ex-Globe boss Dominic Dromgoole is undeniably on to a good thing by kicking his year-long celebration of the works of Wilde off with ‘A Woman of No Importance’.

Yes, there’s a fair amount of chintz to get through in a play that commences with a positive deluge of artisan-crafted one-liners and baffling minor characters. 

But in what I suppose one might optimistically call the post-Weinstein era, the 1893 play doesn’t half whump home as it enters its later stages.

Initially it’s a series of dry observations on the general superfluousness of men by the multitudinous ladies of leisure gathered at Lady Hunstanton’s country estate. Its a touch aimless, albeit greatly enlivened by Anne Reid’s Hunstanton, who blithely wanders off with the shows early stages via her beguiling mix of dottiness and barbed observation.

But a third or so through, Dromgoole wheels out his big guns: Eve Best, a phenomenal, heavyweight actor and erstwhile Globe regular. She lends Wilde’s play the humanity and pathos it needs to pivot from airy witticism-fest to stark clash between her trenchant decency as Mrs Arbuthnot and the toxic masculinity of caddish MP Lord Illingworth (Dominic Rowan). The pair were an item back in their youths; he refused to stand by her when she fell pregnant; she is now horrified when he wanders back into her life with designs on their son Gerald. 

What’s still impressive about the play is its fierce morality – there is no cosy rapprochement, and Illingworth is shown up as a compete shit. There is no redemption or forgiveness for his behaviour – it’s both impressive and depressing that these points could be made so eloquently 120 years ago.

The play still creaks something rotten: really the first third of it is just Wilde fannying about, and there are a ludicrous number of characters. Dromgoole presents a fairly trad production that wouldn’t have half as much impact without Best, his only really ostentatious interjection being the addition of a series of amusingly puritanical Victorian ballads sung by Reids doddery Hunstanton during the scene changes.

Still, it’s a solid start to a season of revivals I’d been slightly dreading, if only through overexposure to ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. ‘A Woman of No Importance’ is quintessential Wilde in a lot of ways, but it’s also a reminder of the steel behind the aphorisms.

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