Theatre: It may be Wilde, but it looks pretty tame

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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE no Oscar Wilde anniversaries this year. That will come next year, with the centenary of his death. And in 2004, with the 150th anniversary of his birth.

Yet despite the fact that there is nothing worth marking, there appear to be more stagings of Wilde this year than of Noel Coward on the occasion of his centenary. Oscar is simply everywhere.

No sooner does one production of The Importance of Being Earnest close, than An Ideal Husband is launched on an unsuspecting world somewhere else. It would probably be possible, if rather unhealthy, to tour the country seeing a different Wilde production every night.

And so the Salisbury Playhouse, purveyors of quality theatre to the cathedral city's genteel middle classes, wheels on Lady Windermere's Fan. Lavishly staged by designer Will Hargreaves in all the finery of 1890s decadence, this is a very pretty production.

The acting ensemble give a very competent delivery of the piece. If there is a fault, it lies in the fact that too many of them are painfully aware of the fact that this is a Wilde play, and impose the modern cliches for "doing period comedy" or "doing Wilde" on their performance, rather than allowing the text to do the work.

But Celia Nelson, as the controversial Mrs Erlynne, soars above the sometimes workmanlike performances around her in a blast of energy. Ms Nelson may be tired of parallels being drawn with Glenda Jackson - whom she startlingly resembles - but along with the appearance and mannerisms, she also shares the Oscar-winning politician's vivacity, presence and strength of character.

Yet despite Ms Nelson's performance, one's immediate reaction to director Jennie Darnell's production is to wonder whether Lady Windermere's Fan is on the GCSE or A-level syllabus this year. For this is simply the text made flesh; the kind of staging which serves to show spotty adolescents how the dusty words that they have been studying appear in three dimensions and glorious technicolor. For older audience members, it serves as theatrical comfort food, allowing them a rumbling chortle of recognition as the lines which have made it into everyday conversation and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations float across the footlights. "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" - buzz buzz - "I can resist everything but temptation" - chortle chortle. It offers the consoling reassurance that Wilde's plays are still the same as they ever were.

Although this is a highly competent staging, the production does little to shake the dust out of what is, between the punchy one-liners and astute observations, a Victorian melodrama. One might be as well off staying at home with a cup of cocoa and an anthology of Oscar's finest bon mots.

Toby O'Connor Morse

To 2 Oct, 01722 320333