THEATRE: Lady Windermere's Fan; Royal Exchange, Manchester

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The Independent Culture
Had Socrates asked Oscar Wilde his famous question "How should we live?", the reply might have been, "Elegantly". Mrs Erlynne, the heroine of Lady Windermere's Fan, puts it thus: "Manners before morals". Our present taste for "morality" may make this hard to comprehend, but if we persevere with it, Wilde's scintillating comedy is enlightening. It exposes the vaunted plainness of morality as bad dressmaking, which conceals neither the hypocrisy nor the vanity of the wearer. Better trust style, artifice and mannerliness for they are knowing, self-aware, ironic - and pleasurable.

The youthful Lady Windermere is not ashamed to call herself a puritan. When she discovers that her husband is visiting and paying large sums of money to a lady of doubtful reputation, she confronts him only to be told that she must receive the woman into society. She insists that she will make a scene, and why should she not? Rebecca Johnson plays Lady Windermere with a subtle sympathy that shows not a hint of priggishness. That she is a victim of male power and hypocrisy is entirely plausible, though it must be admitted that Tim Walters as Windermere does have an honest look about him. Whether or not the simultaneous declaration of love from the intense Lord Darlington (Simon Robson), whose romanticism is combined with a penetrative disgust at "the world" and the "badness" of his own gender, is to be trusted is only a little more in doubt.

But what to make of the lady herself, Mrs Erlynne, whose mystery may only be that of a blackmailer and her wit the practised armoury of a manipulative survivor? Morality deals in black and white. By the time we the jury troop out to our interval drinks neither shade is in sight.

Braham Murray's excellent production maintains Wilde's essential lightness without being seduced into trampolining from one epigram to the next. He does, for instance, allow generous room to Wilde's supporting caricatures. In a thoroughly well-cast production, Rosalind Knight's Duchess, dispatching her daughter to a photograph album with the aside "such a pure taste", registers new heights in condescension, and Nick Caldecott's Cecil is in a positive fever of ennui. Best of all is James Saxon's endearing Lord Augustus, his waistcoat straining over an amplitude of dissolute good nature.

Gabrielle Drake as Mrs Erlynne is in absolute verbal and physical control of these treacherous salons. As the patina cracks, however, in Act 3, and her pain shows nakedly through, she is less powerful. We see most depth in this character when the surface is most composed.

This is a hugely enjoyable show for the season. It is also one that demonstrates why it is a play for those currently so keen to straighten our laces.

To 1 Feb. Booking: 0161-833 9833 Jeffrey Wainwright