THEATRE / Gilded edge: Paul Taylor on Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan

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The Independent Culture
Shares in gold leaf must rocket whenever Philip Prowse announces he's going to do a Wilde. Three years ago, his RSC production of A Woman of No Importance took its design cue from a remark by the play's puritanical American character, Hester, who sees London society as 'a dead thing smeared with gold'. As a result, not even the ivy was spared a gilding in Prowse's glamorously literal-minded staging.

There's quite a lot of gilt by association with Oscar in this version of Lady Windermere's Fan too. As usual, though, with this director / designer, there's a camp, inhuman monumentality about the decor that threatens to turn the poor actors into mannequins.

This production flares into rather thrilling life only after three acts and two intervals of marrowless melodrama. By that stage, you've had to put up with a Lady Windermere (Amanda Elwes) so off-putting in her self-aggrieved righteousness and with a Windermere from Rupert Frazer so absurdly lacking in warmth that you are hard put to take even an academic interest in the fate of their marriage. Nor is it easy to see what attraction she holdsfor Simon Dutton's fine Darlington, the mots-scattering individualist brave enough to try to put his morality where his clever mouth is.

True, Jennifer Hilary does a diverting turn as the Duchess of Berwick and, looking like something you might have got if Beardsley had illustrated Wind in the Willows, David Foxxe's Mr Graham also knows how to make an epigram take flight, even if he's far too old for the part. In general, though, there's a leadenness to the occasion - with Miss Savile at the party doing inexplicably depressed circuits of the drawing-room like someone locked in a circle of Dante's hell - which holding back the disclosure of Lady Windermere's relation to Mrs Erlynne until the final act does nothing to ease.

That last decision winds up paying dividends, though. Prior to her poignant adieux to her daughter, whose honour she has saved and whom she leaves ignorant of their blood-relation, Francesca Annis's Mrs Erlynne has mainly played this woman, who has 'at least a dozen pasts' which 'all fit', within a safe Joan Collins range - flouncing defiantly in her black lace and choker and offering insufficient glimpses of the character's more complex hinterland. But in the final scene, Annis makes the painful interplay between the brave, brisk insouciance of surface manner and the unfamiliar maternal feelings she can't afford to show wonderfully moving. She lets you see a character who patronises society, while realising, for the first time, the grief of accepting exclusion from it - a virtuous as well as witty fallen woman. Barely good beforehand, it's here that the production touches greatness.

At the Albery Theatre, London WC2 (Booking: 071=867 1115)