theatre: The House of Mirth, Oxford Playhouse

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"Social conditions as they are just now in our new world, where sudden possession of money has come without inherited obligations, or any traditional sense of solidarity between the classes, is a vast and absorbing field for the novelist, and I wish a great master could arise to deal with it..." This extract from a letter by Edith Wharton is quoted in the programme for Cambridge Theatre Company's fine new stage adaptation of The House of Mirth, a 1905 novel that went some way to establishing Wharton's own credentials for the task she had earmarked.

Set in turn of the century New York, where old values were being displaced by new money in an extravagant, amoral milieu for which the phrase "conspicuous consumption" had had to be invented, The House of Mirth charts the disastrous social career of its heroine, Lily Bart. Trained to be an ornament, after her father's financial ruin she has had to make almost a career of being a house guest at the homes of swankier friends. Now 29, she needs to secure her position in this world by capturing a husband. Through Lily, Wharton examines the parlous position of an unmarried woman who has to live on, as well as with, the rich, and the price that must be paid for doing so.

This stage version, by Dawn Keeler in collaboration with Adolf Wood and director Annie Castledine, gives Lily's fate an ostentatiously foredoomed feel by presenting the action as retrospect. The play begins with Lily's coffin arriving at Grand Central Station and imagines that her so-called friends hold a bickering post-mortem while waiting for the train that will bear them to her funeral at Bellmont. One set (by Iona McLeish), a network of steel mesh staircases with art deco-like banisters, serves as the surprisingly versatile arena for these recriminatory flashbacks.

If the fact that the cast are in black mourning weeds throughout makes New York's high life seem an unduly monochrome affair, it does have the advantage of heightening our sense of the heroine's separateness from, and superiority to, the social circles that destroy her. Picked out in a silver dress, Jane Maud's wonderfully moving Lily is both observer of and participant in the dramatised inquest. Was Lily just a failed adventuress or genuinely a higher being? Did she want the privileges of marriage without the responsibilities, or was her negative way with suitors evidence of some fundamental integrity?

With her mischievous smile and worldly, cigarette-kippered voice, Maud does not pretend that Lily is an innocent, yet piercingly brings out the pain and the pathos of the heroine's contradictory predicament: the fact that she can see right through this world but is implicated up to her neck in it. With Lily's coffin on stage throughout, and her associates crow-like in their black, the idea of her as a foreordained victim of her environment is fairly overpowering, but Maud gives Lily a complex, captivating life before death.

n On tour. Details on 0171-401 9797