Wilde’s intention is to attack the rigidity and hypocrisy of Victorian morality. His “good woman” Lady Windermere believes with pretty flimsy cause that her husband is in sexual and financial thrall to the scandalous Mrs Erlynne, a social outsider but would-be insider. What Lady Windermere doesn't know is that Mrs Erlynne is her mother, and the action of the drama brings the shock of disclosure almost but not quite to fruition by means of devices which seem a little hackneyed today. In its course the Windermeres come to a somewhat better understanding of themselves and their marriage, while Mrs Erlynne is the scarlet woman who turns out to have a heart.
Rebecca Threlfall’s direction, in her first stab at Wilde, is brisk and businesslike. Set design is functional, with stencilled pastel walls to the Windermere’s morning room, though to judge by the rather tatty desk and dining chairs, the hush money handed over to Mrs Erlynne has left the family not far off the breadline.
If the play is going to speak to a contemporary audience, strong ensemble acting in the stylised Wildean mode is required, and here the production is sometimes found wanting. While Alexandra Hedges’ Lady Windermere gives a strong lead, combining vacillation and decision in the difficult part of a good woman, some other players fail to explore the bursts of emotion that punctuate the smooth dialogue. Jamie Coreth as Lord Darlington is a case in point, but more seriously Christine Taylor’s Mrs Erlynne skates over the key moments in Acts III and IV when first she covers up for Lady Windermere and then lifts the mask briefly to show the trauma of the loss of her child. Jonathan Tilley as Mr Cecil Graham is the pick of the men about town, and I applaud the double act of the ebullient Duchess of Berwick and nervous Lady Agatha. Phoebe Thompson makes the most of the former, and Tatiana Hennessey is a charmingly bewildered ingenue.