You have to hand it to Samantha Bond. Oscar Wilde's sentimental "woman with a past" plots are creaky and risible. But in Adrian Noble's starry revival of A Woman of No Importance she succeeds - at times - in wiping the superior smirk off your face. To the role of Mrs Arbuthnot, the unmarried mother who 20 years earlier was undone by a faithless peer, she brings the kind of layered intensity and passionate suffering that would not seem low-powered in a staging of Racine. The actress has the potential for tragedy. But the play settles for clunky melodrama that leaves Wilde looking like an improbable bedfellow of Mrs Henry East Lynne Wood, of deathless "He is your father!" fame.
Played by Rupert Graves with the right hint of languid loucheness, Lord Illingworth, the drama's rotter-in-residence, has become smitten by Julian Ovenden's handsome, puppyish Gerald and has recruited the young man as his secretary. Just his secretary? Well, there are suggestions here that Wilde would have liked to make Illingworth's interest in the young man homoerotic. Bisexuality would certainly have given a twist to Gerald's discovery that his mentor is his father. In the intimate scene when the two men smoke post-prandial cigarettes together, Illingworth's pep talk has a perfumed whiff of the corrupting cynicism with which Lord Henry Wotton influenced Dorian Gray. There are even directs lifts from that novel ("Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals").
As ill luck would have it, however, there is a young, ardent American Puritan on hand to get us back to the very straight and the very narrow. Badly overacted by Rachael Sterling, Hester Worsley is almost radioactive with virtue. As the stately dowagers drink their after-dinner coffee, she treats them to such a crazed and protracted harangue on the moral shortcomings of the English that it's a wonder they don't put her under sedation. Then, when Illingworth (for a bet) tries to sneak a kiss on the terrace, she rushes in like someone who has just fled from the clutches of Jack the Ripper. She's just as objectionable in her great change of heart in the last act, moving with tearful, shining self-approval from a sins-of-the-father philosophy to the belief that God's only law is love.
The compensation for the conformity in the plots of Wilde's lesser plays is supposed to be that it's often contradicted by the witty subversiveness of the surrounding conversation. But Noble's production, with attractive designs in a hazy green wash by Peter McKintosh, lacks the energy and sparkle needed for such a balancing act. Joanne Pearce lounges provocatively in far too effortful an attempt to befatale as Mrs Allonby, Illingworth's nearest female counterpart. Prunella Scales embellishes the role of Lady Hunstanton, the old crock who can never remember which way round things are (was it a lunatic who wanted to be a clergyman or a clergyman who wanted to be a lunatic?), by appearing to have her own bouts of forgetfulness. The epigrams, which are increasingly predictable, are so relentless that they start to feel like an irritating nervous tic rather than a liberating play of wit. But Caroline Blakiston achieves the right casually imperious music as Lady Pontefract, the dragon who would like to keep her hubby on a leash so short that it would strangle him.
Oscar was nursing an indisposed Lord Alfred Douglas in Norfolk while composing A Woman of No Importance - an ordeal that might well have reduced even Shakespeare to writing below par. This piece is not his finest hour. Nor is it Noble's.