THEATRE / A few words to the wise: An Ideal Husband - Royal Exchange

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The Independent Culture
THE lighting and snuffing of candles, the delivery of letters on silver salvers, the deferential nod - in plays such as Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, two or more actors will have to make a performance out of these occasional minute visits to the stage. For instance, as Lord Goring's butler Phipps, Simon Carter has barely more than six 'Yes my lord's, and one 'No my lord'. But then . . . 'Goring: Extraordinary thing about the lower class in England - they are always losing their relations. Phipps: Yes my lord] They are extremely fortunate in that respect.' This observation from Phipps, delivered with meticulous timing by Carter, strikes the deepest chord of Wilde's play. With this one utterance, though we have no hope of plumbing whatever depth of character and experience might have drawn it from him, we glimpse how Phipps' devotion to the impeccable externals of butlerdom provide him with a style by which he can live.

He is therefore the perfect gentleman's gentleman to Lord Goring (Robert Glenister). Goring, the classic feckless hero of comedy, anguishing over whether his buttonhole is sufficiently trivial, is an irresponsible delight. He is the despair of his infuriated father (Jeffrey Wickham) whose demand 'Do you really always understand what you say, sir?' is certainly a good question. Goring stands for grace, pleasure and uselessness in a world that prides itself on imperturbability, duty and utility. To accomplish this opposition he must keep perfect balance on the finest point of wit and elegance; to play him requires the perfection of movement and timing provided by Robert Glenister.

As Goring knows, the solid world is not so solid. Sir Robert Chiltern, a brilliant politician on the verge of high office, appears the soul of probity. In fact his career, his wealth and thus his marriage are founded on corruption. As Chiltern, Tom Chadbon has a way of jerking his head so it can be held ever higher, a reflex which in itself suggests his insecurity. He is sometimes too low-voiced to be heard, but this is still a performance which shows Chiltern's priggishness and vulnerability in equal measure.

The engine of his imminent exposure as a fraud is Mrs Cheveley. In Brenda Blethyn's vivid portrayal, dressed in the prescribed heliotrope by designer Tom Rand, she is best described as a purple woman. An avaricious schemer, a blackmailer and a common thief, she is nonetheless a figure as exciting and nearly as sympathetic as Goring. She is as apart from, and undeceived by this society as he is, and as wittily devoted to aesthetic form: 'A woman whose size in gloves is seven and three quarters never knows much about anything.' That charity - Goring's essential virtue - is beyond her is almost certainly on account of her sex. Women, she remarks, are punished for being charming, and the others on view are either the objects or the inspiration of masculine virtue. Wickedness is all that is left. It is a frustration of the play that she has no sting left for the last act.

James Maxwell directs a satisfying production, further embellished by a brilliant cameo from Una Stubbs.

Until 8 August; 061-833 9833