An Ideal Husband, Vaudeville Theatre, London, review: Edward and Freddie Fox create a delicious double act

Oscar Wilde’s comedy gets a shrewd, enjoyable revival from Jonathan Church

Paul Taylor
Friday 04 May 2018 11:08
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Freddie and Edward Fox in ‘An Ideal Husband’
Freddie and Edward Fox in ‘An Ideal Husband’

Freddie Fox was brilliant a few years ago as Oscar Wilde’s nemesis, Bosie, throwing his toys out of the pram in paroxysms of petulance in David Hare’s Judas Kiss. Now he’s back in Wilde country, giving an enchantingly comic performance as Lord Goring, Bosie’s temperamental opposite, in this shrewd, very enjoyable revival of An Ideal Husband directed by Jonathan Church.

Goring is the dandy who keeps his considerable goodness and wisdom under the wraps of a reputation for flamboyant flippancy and affectation. Fox’s performance beautifully shows you the generosity and lack of self-importance with which the character makes light of his hidden depths.

There is more buoyant mischief and less underlying melancholy than you get in some portrayals of Goring. but you never doubt his right to be Wilde’s spokesperson, making a heartfelt plea for a life that acknowledges the primacy of love and forgiveness over rigid, pitiless perfectionism. For all his preening, you come to see that it is the righteous folk who are the real egomaniacs in this play.

The “ideal husband” is a man haunted by the threat of imminent exposure. In its preoccupation with blackmail, scandal and the gap between public and private morality, this play eerily prefigures the fate that was about to engulf the author just months after its opening. But Church’s revival – the latest in Classic Spring’s year-long Wilde Season at the Vaudeville – happily does not weigh the piece down by having the shadow of Reading Gaol fall across it.

You emerge, rather, marvelling at the golden good humour and delicious sense of the absurd that never left Wilde even in times of extreme stress. I don’t mean it as any disrespect to the way the main plot is treated to say that it’s the handling of the secondary comic aspects that made me glad to be there.

Frances Barber plays the melodrama to the hilt as the adventuress Mrs Cheveley who can destroy the career and marriage of Sir Robert Chiltern (Nathaniel Parker) unless he gives his support to a fraudulent Argentine canal scheme. She possesses a compromising letter that proves that this rising politician founded his wealth and career on selling a cabinet secret.

No one can throw their head back and let loose dastardly laughs like Barber. On press night, these campily wicked chortles got another airing when said compromising letter stubbornly refused to catch fire for Freddie Fox when he fed it to a candle. “Nobody can read it now,” he resourcefully ad-libbed over the charred page.

You wonder a bit about the age difference between these two actors – did Mrs Cheveley have to help Lord Goring down from his high chair before they embarked on their brief fling years before? – but not about Mrs C’s dress sense. Those huge and intimidating puff sleeves look designed to induce nightmares about bumping into this wicked, wicked woman in a corridor. Smart thinking.

I relished the humour that was more clearly intentional. For example, Susan Hampshire is an absolute delight as Lady Markby, wittering away about modern manias in a hilarious tour de force of empty-headed high society prattling. And the venerable Edward Fox creates a delicious double act of mutual exasperation with Freddie: his real-life son playing his fictional one.

“Do you really always understand what you say, sir?” asks the crusty old buffer. Freddie’s hesitation is exquisitely poised between the provoking and the affectionate. “Yes, father, if I listen attentively.” Unimprovable.

Until 14 July (nimaxtheatres.com)

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