By Paul Campion
Men find it extremely difficult to get married in Oscar Wilde plays. In ‘The Importance of being Earnest’ Jack Worthing is thwarted in his marital ambitions by possessing the wrong name. In ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’ – dramatised by Constance Cox from Wilde’s original short story – the hero faces an even greater obstacle to getting hitched.
Young blade-about-1890s London Lord Arthur Savile is all set to wed his sweetheart Sybil. Unfortunately Sybil’s mother is in thrall to the society palmist Septimus Podgers and insists that Arthur has his palm read to see if any skeletons come clattering out of his closet. When Podgers’ palmistry reveals that Arthur is destined to commit murder, our hapless hero determines that the only decent thing a chap can do in the circumstances is to get the unpleasant deed over and done with before the wedding. The nuptuals are duly postponed until Arthur can find a suitable victim – a task that proves to be harder than he thought.
This is all typical Wildean froth and nonsense of course, demanding a lightness of touch in both acting and direction to carry it off. I’m pleased to report that Andy Solts and his cast were successful on both counts. The tone throughout was as light as a soufflé, with Wilde’s elegantly sharp one-liners unerringly hitting their mark.
A great deal of the success of this show depends on the chemistry between Lord Arthur and his faithful valet Baines. James Mercer (Arthur) and Paul Ackroyd (Baines) proved the perfect concoction, the latter bringing a calm, composed wiliness to his role, providing the ideal foil for his young master’s more excitable nature. A deliciously Jeeves and Wooster-ish double act.
To say that Hilary Cordery relished her role as the fearsome ‘mother-in-law from hell’ Lady Julia Merton would be an understatement. Cordery attacked it with not only relish, but just about every condiment you can think of. With her withering put-downs, imperious demeanour and a never-ending array of marvellous costumes (more on those later), this was a battleaxe who would have given even the legendary Lady Bracknell a handbagging.
As the eccentric Prussian anarchist Herr Winkelkopf, Mike Savill was also clearly having the time of his life. From his first barnstorming entrance he delivered a performance of such committed, full-on, all-stops-out energy one feared he might explode, unlike his constantly-failing devices.
By contrast, Charis Anna Mostert was sweetness and light personified as Sybil Merton, Arthur’s would-be bride. Mostert is blessed with the perfect look for this kind of period role, but she also brought a delightfully deft subtlety and nuance to her performance.
The same could also be said of Felix Catto, who specialises in playing characters like The Dean of Paddington, but always brings something extra to them – on this occasion, a convincing and very well-sustained speech impediment. Bwavo! Likewise, we were also treated to another BLT stalwart, Arthur Rochester, making the most of his role as the palm-reader Podgers by expertly combining initial servility with sneaky villainy later on.
Wilde’s ladies are always memorable and Jane Amos-Davidson and Jan Greenhough upheld that tradition as Lady Windermere and Lady Clementina Beauchamp. I particularly enjoyed the ‘business’ in the scene in which Lady Clementina continually fails to eat the poisoned bon-bon meant for her. And although it’s not a ‘grand lady’ or a large part, Claire Darlington certainly extracted all the comic possibilities from her role of Nellie the lovestruck maid.
The show moved along at a cracking pace, with Stage Manager Emma Christmas and her crew ensuring that scene changes were swift and all effects expertly-handled. The explosion of the second bomb had us all cowering in our seats and was so convincing I’m told that Bromley police and the surrounding restaurants had to be warned in advance!
But what really put the icing on the cake in this production was the look of it. Debbie Griffiths’ costumes were simply breathtaking. Every scene (or so it seemed) saw each of the ladies resplendent in yet another dazzlingly colour co-ordinated creation. Detail was perfect and so obviously carefully considered, right down to the way the ladies held their parasols constantly upright when sitting. As for the set, the fact that the audience burst into spontaneous applause when the curtain rose tells you all you need to know about Tony Jenner’s sumptuous design.
As I write, I note that all tickets are sold out for the final five performances. If the standard of future shows at BLT remains at the level set by this one, that’s a scenario we’ll be seeing much more of.