Lady Windermere's Fan, Vaudeville Theatre, London, review: Jennifer Saunders is inspired casting

Jennifer Saunders as Duchess of Berwick and Grace Molony as Lady Windermere in 'Lady Windermere's Fan' at Vaudeville Theatre: Marc Brenner
Jennifer Saunders as Duchess of Berwick and Grace Molony as Lady Windermere in 'Lady Windermere's Fan' at Vaudeville Theatre: Marc Brenner

Kathy Burke directs this second major production in the year long celebration of Oscar Wilde's work that Dominic Dromgoole and his new company Classic Spring are bringing to the West End. Like their version of A Woman of No Importance, which kicked off the season, this revival helps to rejuvenate the play by some sparky casting and by pouring real feeling into the creaky melodramatic conventions from which Wilde, in his first West End foray, was unable to free himself. If Lady Windermere's Fan is not as good a play, it similarly demonstrates the author's shrewd empathy for the position of women and for the sacrifices and accommodations forced on them by polite society.

The young Lady Windermere flees her own birthday party because she's been led to believe that her husband has been betraying her with Mrs Erlynne, a “fallen” woman who is now trying to manoeuvre her way back into the social swim. This information is brought to her in the first scene by the gorgon Duchess of Berwick, hilariously played by Jennifer Saunders, here returning to the West End stage for the first time in twenty five years. It's inspired casting, bringing out how like some ghastly cross between Lady Bracknell and Edina from Absolutely Fabulous this creature, in her pantomime plumes, comes over. She even has an equivalent of Saffy to dominate, repeatedly shooing away her daughter so that she can gossip freely and barely letting her “little chatterbox” get a word in edgeways in meetings with the rich Australian to whom she wants to marry her off,

Saunders looks at times as though she is taking pert in a Comic Relief sketch and some people may think that there are traits in her portrayal – the goggling deadpans; the lines that leak through scarcely parted lips – that are too trademark for comfort. But I was delighted to find it's mostly true to the role, even if it's somewhat out of character for the Duchess to return and give voice to a specially-written and suggestive entr'acte ditty: “Keep you hands off my fan, sir!”. The pretty designs by Paul Wills have gone mad for fans, by the way. The large window opening onto the Windermere's terrace is fan-shaped; the proscenium is fringed with miniature cut-out; and there's a safety curtain covered will period illustrations of how the fan may be used as semaphore.

The Duchess says of Mrs Erlynne; “Many a woman has a past, but I am told that she has at least a dozen, and they all fit.” Samantha Spiro is splendid as this so-called scarlet woman who discovers an unfamiliar capacity for self-sacrifice stirring within her when is confronted with the daughter who who is never know their relationship) poised to make the same ruinous mistakes. There's wit and diamond- flash and fierceness in her performance (the character is no drooping penitent; she''s effectively been taking hush money from Lord Windermere). But Spiro is deeply moving because she brings the lightest of touches to showing us the belated maternal feelings that Mrs Erylnne now has to deflect with pained flippancy and strained smiles. And she never loses her adventuress's bright-eyed sense of mischief, despite the heartbreak. Part of her is going through hell, part of her is enjoying a sense of control in final scene.

Joshua James finely accentuates Lord Windermere's callowness. Grace Molony humanises the priggish title character by emphasising her youth and vulnerability, The show is uneven but there's a freshnness here that's very attractive. Recommended.

Until 7 April (vaudevilletheatre.org.uk)

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