Theatre: Comedy of mannerisms

THEATRE Lady Windermere's Fan Theatre Royal, London
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Of an aspiring politician in Lady Windermere's Fan, it is said that he's sure to be a wonderful success because "he thinks like a Tory and talks like a radical and that's so important these days". Wilde's plays often perform a similar trick but in reverse. The cadences are those of dogmatic absolutism: the sentiments are bracingly subversive.

Lady Windermere, his first West End hit, cunningly manages to have it both ways. The young puritanical title character has to be brought to see that good and evil aren't as obligingly clear cut as she'd imagined and that a stereotyped scarlet "woman with a past" may be capable of a moral courage and generosity not associated with the species. But it is this very figure, a worldly, child-abandoning adventuress - who is the ironic agent through which conventional values are reasserted.

In self-sacrificially not revealing herself as Lady Windermere's mother and in not disclosing how near her daughter has come to compromising herself, Mrs Erlynne gives her blessing to marriage, conformity, and unreal standards that it has been demonstrated can only be sustained by lies and illusions. Like Francesca Annis, who played this latter role in the West End three years ago, Gabrielle Drake, who now performs the part in Braham Murray's enjoyable but distinctly patchy production, is at her best in the great scene where she decides to keep quiet and where unfamiliar maternal feelings stir painfully under the practised social mask.

One of the characters describes Mrs Erlynne as "an edition de luxe of wicked French novel, meant specially for the English market" - a novel that, in Ms Drake's somewhat under-fatale case, seems to have been translated by Trollope, whereas with the flouncingly defiant Ms Annis, it looked to have taken a leaf or two out of Joan Collins' book(s). Ms Drake is very witty and excels at sweeping off stage with a brilliantly timed barbed remark on her lips but, like the rest of the cast, she adopts unconscionably many postures - lots of taut straining, mechanical agitatedness, tilting of the head at tragic angles, etc, etc - during the badly written melodramatic moments.

What is impressive, by contrast, is her underplaying of the implicit pathos in the renunciation scene. The pain Mrs Erlynne is having to repress beneath the brisk insouciance of manner is all the more telling because she never for a moment asks the audience to see this as brave. "Manners before morals," she declares to Richard Hansell's very young looking, righteous Lord Windermere in the mock-moralising tones of someone who is in wry intellectual control of the ironies in the situation. Not least that she is able to do what is moral, in society's terms, by recourse to a non-conformist philosophy that perversely confuses Essex and sartorial fashions (you do what is least unflattering to you and so of course cannot be seen with a grown-up daughter).

Playing Lady Windermere, Rebecca Johnson establishes an initial warmth and consequently is never so shrilly self-aggrieved as to become rebarbative, and Rosalind Knight, splendid as the iron-clad Duchess of Berwick, delivers her lines as if they were delayed action deadly devices for which the Duchess can accept no responsibility. If Ms Knight is beginning to look, to a disconcerting degree, like Hermione Gingold, one might also remark that certain speeches of Simon Dutton's priggishly romantic Lord Darlington - "No, we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" sounds suspiciously like trial runs for Now Voyager.

Booking to June (0171-930 8800)