'The chin a little higher, dear,' Lady Bracknell advises Cecily, her prospective niece-in-law. 'Style largely depends on the way the chin is worn. They are worn very high, just at present.' It's not a fashion tip she follows all that religiously herself, though, or at least not in Maggie Smith's hilarious version of the dreadnought dowager now on view at the Aldwych. When she first sweeps in, the head may be reared back but the chin is tucked down, in tight disapproving mode, against the chest. Replace that imperious feathered hat with a head-scarf and milady's pursed moues and her air of pinched, almost predatory respectability would start to look distinctly suburban.
Despite the apparent confidence of all her ex cathedra utterances on class, taste and propriety, this Lady Bracknell - who comes equipped with a Quentin Crisp-like nasal rasp and the posture, at moments, of a male window-dresser - seems curiously on a continuum with the anxiously aspiring chiropodist's wife Smith played to perfection in A Private Function. Heedless of wartime rationing, that character, you'll remember, was so paranoid about being looked down upon by the neighbours that she tipped specially opened cling peaches into her rubbish in order to give it that spurious touch of class.
Lady Bracknell's corresponding obsession with status is generally presented as secure Olympian pernicketiness. Here, though, it has a different edge. The titled monster may be dead set against her daughter forming an alliance with a parcel, but you could deduce, from this production, that her own lofty social position has come about only thanks to Lord Bracknell's willingness to form an alliance with a parvenue. In which case, his wife's tireless penchant for making dogmatic discriminations emerges as the compulsive behaviour of the arriviste turned beady-eyed expert at border- control.
This is certainly a novel perspective and you could just about twist the odd detail in the text to lend it support (Lady Bracknell does, after all, admit that she had no fortune of any kind when she married). It would be hard to say, however, whether the effect is intended or just what you get, willy-nilly, if you cast Maggie Smith in such a part. Especially so, since, apart from her, the only distinctive new angles on the play you get in Nicholas Hytner's enjoyable but bland production come from Bob Crowley's design. Giving fin de siecle decadence a joky tilt, Algernon's flat in Act 1 is a slant-roofed property with sinful crimson walls which melt into carnation green. It's a lighthearted skew- whiff look at what could be dark and dangerous, just like the comedy, which, with its farcical treatment of double lives as 'Bunburying', gives an insouciant playfulness to a predicament that was to spell disaster for the bisexual Wilde a matter of weeks after the premiere.
The title provides the best acting tip in that it's vital that the performers play against the absurdity of the farce by being fully in earnest. The excellent Claire Skinner makes Cecily an almost terrifying study in fresh-cheeked singlemindedness, believing her own diary fantasies with a fundamentalist's unblinking literalism. And Alex Jennings as Jack Worthing also captures just the right note of stiff-backed indignation. There are some weak links, however, in Hytner's starry cast. Though you feel that this Gwendolen could well turn into her mother, Lady Bracknell, Susannah Harker doesn't sound at all at home with the swoopingly disdainful intonations, and Richard E Grant has to struggle, paradoxically, to be languid and debonair as the smugly smiling Algernon.
When Maggie Smith is around, these shortcomings aren't so obtrusive. There's a glorious moment when, about to depart in high dudgeon, she hears that her nephew's fiancee is in fact an heiress. The stage direction suggests that Lady Bracknell 'bends, with a practised smile, to CECILY'; but that wouldn't begin to describe the radiant sickliness of the leer that forces its way over Smith's face. Practised? Well, perhaps once a decade, and with this Bracknell, you feel, only likely to be brought on by some business arrangement.
Continues at the Aldwych Theatre, London WC2 (071-836 6404).
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