Under Richmond’s magnificent, Matcham-designed proscenium nestles another, more gaudy one. This has the air of a Victorian children’s toy theatre, with its simplified, painted-on swags and crudely-drawn ornamentations.
The effect is amplified once the small theatre’s curtain rises, revealing sets constructed from painted flats and characters ripped straight from the Big Boys’ Book of Wildean Archetypes. There’s the imperious dowager who is the fulcrum of society; the absent-minded vicar for whom devotion to God is not top of his list of priorities; the foppish aristocrat who can’t help but get himself into trouble; and his fiancée, whose only role seems to be the prize the aristo will receive for relinquishing his foppish ways. If the actors had lengths of wood attached to their feet, running off into the wings to be controlled by the hands of giant children, it would be no surprise.
It sounds a ridiculous setting, and it is. The truth is it’s perfect for Trevor Baxter’s play, which takes a short story by Oscar Wilde and turns it into an amusing comedy that, while never matching the original author’s own stage works, is nevertheless highly enjoyable. Playing on both Victorian obsessions with the supernatural and eternal questions about the nature of free will in the presence of a higher power determining our fate, it also satirises the melodrama of period theatre.
The story itself is slight in the extreme, belying perhaps its origins. Lord Arthur Savile (Lee Mead in his first dramatic stage role) is told by his aunt’s palm reader that he is destined to commit a single murder — and he concludes that, if he is to ensure that the victim is not to be his fiancée, he must commit the dreadful act before committing to marriage. As with genuine Wilde, the story itself is of less consequence than the dry wit of the dialogue. Here, Baxter does well to emulate the playwright’s observational style, although the topics for his witticisms are rather limited. Still, he finds enough variation in the theme of ‘everything changes after marriage’ to prevent a sense of repetition from getting in the way of laughter.
The actors work their hardest to add a third dimension to their otherwise cardboard characters, although Kate O’Mara plays the role of haughty aunt in what seems to be her second-best pair of teeth, and the whole time appears to be in a holding pattern ready for the offer of playing Lady Bracknell to come through any day now. Mead is comfortable in the role of Lord Arthur, playing the straight man to the majority of comic characters but displaying a fine sense of comic timing when the moment requires.
But it is Gary Wilmot, as the clairvoyant Septimus Podgers, who makes this production really work. It is a true pleasure to see an actor best known for a long succession of musical theatre successes demonstrate that his versatility extends well beyond the confines of the song and dance genre.
Richmond Theatre, Richmond-upon-Thames
February 8-13, then touring
by: Trevor Baxter, adapted from the short story by Oscar Wilde
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Cast: Lee Mead, Gary Wilmot, Kate O’Mara, Derren Nesbitt, David Ross, Louisa Clein, Belinda Carroll
- I attended the performance as a guest of Richmond Theatre.