Theatre An Ideal Husband Theatre Royal, Haymarket

The casting of Martin (The Professionals) Shaw as Oscar Wilde's languidly foppish Lord Goring might sound on paper as perilously perverse a plan as, say, inviting Sean Connery to play the lead in a biopic about Proust. In practice, though, Shaw is quite wonderful in the part - even better now than he was when Peter Hall's splendidly enjoyable and thought- provoking production of An Ideal Husband was unveiled in 1992.

Simon Russell Beale, our era's greatest interpreter of Restoration fops, specialises in allowing glimpses at the emptiness and despairing self- hatred that can lie behind all that narcissistic preening. By contrast, the joy of Shaw's performance is the humour and humanity with which he lets you see that Lord Goring, Wilde's 1890s dandy, has a rich hinterland. The voice he uses may sound, paradoxically, like Noel Coward drawling. The jut of the tubby tummy and the effeteness of the posture may suggest that if games really are character-building, then Lord Goring's character is still at the design stage.

But if Shaw occasionally hints at an underlying melancholy, he also shows how this is continually counteracted by the sheer strength of Goring's warm good nature. Indicating tolerance and flexibility, his floppiness seems decidedly attractive when ranged beside the rigid backbone of his best friends, Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern (David Yelland and Penny Downie). The latter's marriage comes near to breaking point when Anna Carteret's insolently stylish Mrs Cheveley threatens to disclose to the press the dishonest act on which Sir Robert has built his fortune and political career. What follows suggests that dandiacal egotists aren't necessarily as self-preoccupied as righteous public servants.

In this revival, Penny Downie replaces Hannah Gordon as Lady Chiltern, a woman who has placed her husband on such a pedestal of idealisation that he cannot share the secret of his past with her. Downie excels at playing strong women - she was a superb Queen Margaret in Richard III and has just impersonated a ball-breaking third-century warrior queen in the RSC's Zenobia. Here, almost to a fault, she transfers that gift to depicting the pressurising neurotic intensity with which Lady Chiltern needs to believe that her husband's rightful place is on an unimpeachable plinth.

When I saw this production in 1992, what made most impression on me was Hall's underscoring of the piece with the imperial music of Elgar. That, plus the huge medal of Queen Victoria that descends between the acts, gave me visions of flag-waving women sending their men off to war and of the men not being able to confess to weakness.

This time I was more struck by the hints of bisexuality in a play that, at times, seems to want to develop into something more like EM Forster's Maurice. Were Sir Robert and Lord Goring ever lovers in the long-distant past? In some ways, the play would make better sense if they had been, and our recognition of Milord's generosity would be intensified.

As it is, Goring has to be married off to Miss Mable who aspires to be his quipping, divinely irresponsible female equivalent, even though a bespectacled Victoria Hasted plays her like a refugee from Daisy Pulls It Off. A hockey stick would make a thoughtful wedding present, and you can't help but feel that the marriage will end in tears.

n To 20 April. Booking: 0171-930 8800


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