Women of whatever importance watching this week’s play by Oscar Wilde will feel heartily glad that they were born in the 20th century when equality between the sexes finally began to even itself out.
Wilde wrapped up some vicious truths about the way some Victorian men viewed women with his witty one liners in this pithy comedy set in a country house in England, where Lord Illingworth (Alistair Birch) has offered Gerald (Joseph Bentley) a position as his private secretary. What he does not know, but is about to find out, is that he and the underpaid young clerk have quite a lot in common.
The house party is hosted by Lady Caroline (Sue Wicks) who is snobbily surrounded by fellow Ladies Hunstanton (Ruth Bailey) and Stutfield (Caroline Lambe) along with the mischief-making Mrs Allonby (Patti Griffiths) a pious MP (Christy Pearce) and archdeacon (Martyn Coates). Oscar has some fun with a hen-pecked Sir John (Des Potton) and foppish Lord Alfred (Tobias Clay).
Wilde’s breath of fresh air and liberal thinker is New World orphan Hester, (Bryony Cook) who questions the barriers set up by 19th century English society: “In America, we have no lower classes” to which Lady Hunstanton can only gasp – “Oh, what a very strange arrangement!”
Lord Illingworth, a cad and proud of it, prowls among the women, quite happily stating that they should be regarded “simply as a toy” and that “kind is a dreadful word”. His philosophy is that the world is made for men and not for women, and that a good reputation is something to which he has never been subjected.
The tragedy at the centre of the comedy is the fact that 20 years earlier, he seduced a young woman, promised her marriage, and then abandoned her and her baby to a lifetime of shame and bitterness – where have we heard that before? It is a story that has been told so many times, but Tess Gill as Mrs Arbuthnot gives a truly moving performance as the mother whose life has been ruined, fully appreciating the sensitivity of Wilde’s wit and wisdom.
Director Harry Atkinson has a fine cast and with this week’s perfect weather, the audience feels involved in the society chit-chat both on the terrace and in the drawing room, with stage manager Mimi Goddard and her assistant Janet White cleverly doubling up as servants.
Finally, we are left to consider, who is the man of no importance?