Review: Lady Windermere’s Fan

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Rating: 4 out of 5.

If, as Oscar Wilde writes, there is no such thing as good and bad, only charming and tedious, Lady Windermere’s Fan is undoubtedly the former. Foot of the Hill’s production is exceptional, cozy yet scandalous, and captures every element of Wilde’s satirical sketch of elite society.

Lady Windermere’s marriage is threatened by the arrival of the older Mrs. Erlynne, with whom she believes her husband is having an affair. Through her coming-of-age party and beyond, the audience learns of the secrets and scandals that rip through high society during the London season.

Lord Darlington, hilariously portrayed by Matthew McConkey, is playfully mischievious with perfect comedic timing that truly matches the quality of the writing

In the title role, Hanna Wright is excellent, ranging from the wild emotion of a wife betrayed to the strength of character required to endure the elite social scene as a woman. Attempting to prize her away from her husband is Lord Darlington, hilariously portrayed by Matthew McConkey, who is playfully mischievous with perfect comedic timing that truly matches the quality of the writing.

Lord Windermere is juggling his own secrets throughout the show, but Ben Cawood takes the character to the next level, genuinely outstanding in every respect from the exaggerated voice to the hysterical bumbling movements that make the role his own. The satire in the script is matched by the physical comedy, particularly from Silas Welsh and Louis Renouf as Mr. Dumby and Cecil Graham, two fixtures of the social scene who could just as well fit into present-day Durham as they do here.

Amongst the other attendees at the party are Ladies Jedburgh, Plymdale, and Stutfield, enjoyably portrayed by Melissa Redman, Nina Hayward, and Maryum Ahmed, who each bring an authentic sense of character that makes them relatable figures. Redman’s comedic ability is especially clear, both on stage and in a very surreal conversation in the bar queue during the interval.

In an enjoyable chnage to the original script, Rosaleen Tite Ahern is a refreshing prescence as Lady Augusta, adding a welcome layer to the sotyr through her relationship with Mrs Erlynne

Sophie Paxton is the perfect overbearing, gossiping – perhaps familiar – mother as the Duchess of Berwick, directing her salacious chatter as much at the audience as at her party acquaintances, a decision which only heightens the intimacy of the piece. Her long-suffering daughter Lady Agatha, ably played by Rosie Tucker, is invited to Ireland by Laura Murphy’s excellently accented Mr. Hopper, and the Duchess’s disgust at the land of “flying leprechauns” rounds off a wonderful performance.

In an enjoyable change to the original script, Rosaleen Tite Ahern is a refreshing presence as Lady Augusta, adding a welcome layer to the story through her relationship with Mrs. Erlynne. Ahern handles the task brilliantly; dryly funny and a counterbalance to the more flamboyant characters, Lady Augusta brings a more explicit link to modern society (even having an on-stage read of this week’s Palatinate).

Completing the party and the source of Lady Windermere’s discomfort is Mrs. Erlynne, brought to stunning life by Genevieve Gaul’s sensitivity and emotion. Throughout the performance, Gaul’s control of Mrs. Erlynne’s competing motivations draws the whole piece together with impressive skill. Her interactions with Lady Windermere in particular are as tender as they are necessarily restricted.

All the while, Freddie Taylor’s butler, Parker, stands ready with a focus that cannot have been easy to maintain, as well as an enjoyable consistent performance.

Director Mollie Matthews writes that her creative vision, alongside assistants Cameron Beech and Katie Proctor, was to create an “intimate and immersive” performance and this is without a doubt achieved in style. The direction is as effective in the rawness of the soliloquies and dialogue as it is in the post-clubbing scene, where Cawood, McConkey, Welsh, Renouf, and Ahern unite to create what is surely one of the funniest, most farcical choreographies of a drunk chase on offer.

This entire team deserves huge credit, esepcially given mutliple venue changes in the lead up to the run

Stage manager Hidayat Malik and assistant Rachna Satnaliwala deserve credit for the organisation of the piece, alongside technical director Rhiannon Morgan and assistant Silas Welsh, whose lighting created warmth and intimacy uncompromised by the cold flowing through the Covid-required open doors. Creative assistant Alicia Bickerstaff and consultant Anna Hayward combine to create a set that matches Wilde’s attention to aesthetic detail.

Completed by producer Joyanne Chan and assistants Emily Slade and Beth Lewis, this entire team deserves huge credit, especially given multiple venue changes in the lead-up to the run. A large fresher contingent is expertly mentored by Sophie Tice, Rex Appeal, Peter Firbank, and Anna Hayward to create something genuinely special and completely charming. 

Image Credit: Foot of the Hill Theatre Company

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