Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband is pure gold, provided you don't look too closely. West End productions are becoming positively splendiferous, as if to defy the recessional gloom.
Lindsay Posner's revival of Wilde's 1890s' domestic-going-on-political drama oozes opulence, with a white-tie party in progress at the Grosvenor Square abode of Sir Robert Chiltern (Alexander Hanson), a respected politician. The place is gilded from floor to ceiling, and his guests are equally lustrous, all the ladies in corseted silk.
However, unknown to his upright and adoring wife (Rachael Stirling), Sir Robert is morally tarnished. No, he hasn't put the furnishings on expenses but, when younger and less principled, made his fortune by insider trading. And now it's returned to haunt him in the form of an unwelcome caller, Samantha Bond's Mrs Cheveley, who blackmails him, threatening an exposé. Having a vested interest, this harpy demands that he support in Parliament a project he formerly condemned.
The contemporary reverberations are obvious. But the ethical questions Wilde raises become interestingly complex as he contemplates the damage that can be done by unbending idealists as well as by obvious malefactors.
That said, while Lady Chiltern has to learn that nobody's perfect, one may still wish that Posner's production and Wilde's own script (with its frightful purple passages) weren't so flawed. With time, it is to be hoped that the cast will stop jolting between mannered stiffness and strained melodramatic crescendos. In between, there are welcome moments of heartfelt naturalism from Hanson and Stirling. Yet many droll lines fall flat, and Elliot Cowan as the couple's confidant, Viscount Goring, milks his gags after the potential tragedy shifts, rather startlingly, into a farce of mistaken identity. While clearly thrilling some young things in the auditorium, Cowan cuts a dash that seems distinctly unVictorian, necking his fiancée in front of her elders, who don't raise an eyebrow.
A black gravedigger plays host to an uninvited white guest in far more straitened circumstances in The Train Driver, a new two-hander written and directed by South Africa's most famous dramatist, Athol Fugard, now 78. His quietly absorbing and assured staging certainly helps Edward Hall's first season as Hampstead Theatre's artistic director recover from a rocky start. Fugard's vision, nonetheless, is hardly brimming with hope as far as his native land is concerned. Though post-apartheid, this is no utopian rainbow nation.
Trekking out to a desolate graveyard on the edge of an impoverished black settlement, Sean Taylor's sweaty Roelf is the titular white train driver. He is cracking up, consumed with guilt but also bitter fury after a suicidal black woman flung herself, and her baby, under his locomotive. At first, he wants to curse over her grave, stumbling around amid the mounds of gravelly sand where nameless and unclaimed corpses are buried.
Yet the old gravedigger, Owen Sejake's Andile – a simple soul of few words – is a soothing presence. He listens to Roelf's account of his trauma and shelters him in the shack where he lives among the graves, singing Xhosa lullabies to any unquiet spirits. Alas, that doesn't stop the younger, knife-wielding, white-hating hoodlums on Roelf's trail.
That The Train Driver progresses unhurriedly is rather winning, reflecting the serenity of Andile, a lumbering bear of a man with a dignified soul. Astutely, Taylor doesn't overdo Roelf's manic fits. All the same, a touch of self-congratulatory worthiness creeps into Fugard's writing towards the end, when you realise that this is really a disguised shrink play, with Andile as Roelf's therapist.
In Saturn Returns, lonely, difficult, 88-year-old widower Gustin (a gaunt, beslippered Richard Evans) is haunted by his younger selves (aged 58 and 28), and by painful memories of his late wife and daughter. He is nudged to talk about them by a visiting nurse, who looks set to become a substitute (all three female roles played by the commendable Lisa Caruccio Came).
Noah Haidle has been trumpeted as one of the United States's most exciting young dramatists. Yet this chamber piece – a UK premiere, directed by Adam Lenson – is mildly tiresome. It cuts back and forth between the decades with schematically echoed lines, and a fanciful climax where the elderly and middle-aged Gustins give the youngest one a drubbing – as if that could change the sorry outcome.
'An Ideal Husband' (0844 412 4663) booking to 19 Feb; 'The Train Driver' (020-7722 9301) to 4 Dec; 'Saturn Returns' (0844 847 1651) to 27 Nov
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