In 150 years time, AI-human hybrids will probably be sitting on plush red seats giggling their implants off over Oscar Wilde’s brilliant society comedy about an English politician, his rakish friend, their WAGs and the disruption of all of the above by an arch Viennese blackmailer. ‘An Ideal Husband’ is light yet indestructible. And, when it’s played with dapper footwork, faultless patter and emotional, moral depth, it blooms as brightly as a dandy’s buttonhole.
In Jonathan Church’s straightforward period production, Freddie Fox is triumphant as the dandyish Lord Goring. There’s never a dull moment when he’s onstage. He wiggles around the gilt set with freshness, energy, intelligence and aplomb – delivering classic quips like ‘to love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance’ as if they were born yesterday. Goring’s reluctance to grow up and get married appals his crusty old father the Earl of Caversham, played here by the actor’s real-life dad Edward Fox (nearly as much of a vintage classic as the play). While the other actors rush about him, see-sawing their way through gallons of paradoxical banter with varying degrees of subtlety, Fox the elder simply stumps on to the stage, stands still, and floors the audience with a single word or line. The programme notes say it all. Actors’ biogs are always stuffed with small-print Shakespeare, Marple, ‘EastEnders’ and Poirot; his reads: ‘Edward Fox is an actor with a very long career.’ Boom. Kids, that’s what a class act looks like.
I could happily have watched the younger and elder Foxes rub each other up the wrong way all night. But sadly, their relationship is merely a subplot. And the main story is more uneven. I don’t want to sound as crusty as the Earl, but Wilde’s comedies are talkies which become sublime when spoken with diction, subtlety, suppleness, range – voices which are lubricated by wit and malice. Not all the cast are up to the gold standard. It’s a shame that Frances Barber, the powerful actress playing femme fatale Mrs Cheveley, is miscast, and sometimes seems shouty and hoarse. Sally Bretton and Nathaniel Parker bring a nice gravitas and grace to Goring’s political power couple pals, Lord and Lady Chiltern. But there’s not much delicacy in the dynamic of blackmail, vanity and disappointment at the heart of this glittering story. It’s a solid evening of real Wilde, with some sparkling facets – just not the ideal one.