An Ideal Husband, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

There must be a few politicians around today who dread the thought of a dangerous woman like Mrs Cheveley coming into their lives. The revelation of a long-forgotten misdemeanour would surely spell disaster for a prestigious member of the House of Commons. Haughty Sir Robert Chiltern fears just that when an old acquaintance of his wife's turns up at his home with a letter that could ruin his reputation, end his career and jeopardise his marriage. She has a "past" in Vienna but, despite his contacts, the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs cannot find evidence of any affair with which he might be able to silence her. And despite his ill-gotten gains from selling a government secret in his youth, even he is not "rich enough to buy back his own past".

An Ideal Husband, Oscar Wilde's witty and intriguing Victorian comedy, is enjoying an elegant revival directed by Braham Murray. The handsome production is well-upholstered by Simon Higlett's dazzling costumes and tasteful set and a cast led by Joanna Riding's viperous yet oddly vulnerable Mrs Cheveley. There's more to An Ideal Husband than pithy quips, droll asides and dry Wildean witticisms, as this staging demonstrates. While the cast delivers all these nimbly enough, with knowing looks and arched eyebrows, it is on the twists, turns and tensions of the plot that the audience's attention is focused.

Simon Robson's Chiltern, all repressed emotion and full of slightly preposterous self-regard, becomes jelly-like in the face of blackmail, while Riding's inscrutable Mrs Cheveley turns the screw ever tighter in her effort to get him to back a scheme from which she stands to benefit financially. The element of farce with characters sidelined into offstage rooms is well contained within the in-the-round space and, after the tedious slice of society life with which the play opens, the principal roles are satisfyingly fleshed out.

Even so, it is difficult to feel much sympathy for Rae Hendrie's morally upright and uptight Lady Chiltern when she discovers that the ideal husband she thought she had snared might not be unimpeachable. In contrast to the melodramatic unfolding of events, the ironic flippancy of Milo Twomey's Lord Goring seems self-consciously superficial, as he prattles on in his apparently genuine desire to convince anyone who'll listen that love rather than material wealth leads to happiness.



To 26 January (0161-833 9833)

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