Revived partly because of its topicality, An Ideal Husband is Oscar Wilde's take on corruption in the House of Commons. Sir Robert Chiltern is a popular, successful MP who started his career (and obscene fortune) by selling a government secret but has had a squeaky-clean record ever since. A mysterious stranger, Mrs Cheveley, appears with proof of this early misdeed and threatens to expose him if he doesn't use his infulence to help one of her own business deals. Real-life husband and wife Samantha Bond and Alexander Hanson play Cheveley and Chiltern and while their scenes together are good, there's not really enough of them. In fact I found the production rather anaemic and cold. Wilde's point is that while your sins may find you out, a person's life shouldn't be entirely judged on an incident in their past but maybe I just have a problem liking Hanson because I was unable to warm to him and therefore care about his predicament. Stephen Brimson Lewis' design cleverly puts across how much wealth he's accrued by having the entire set be mirrored gilt but this doesn't help with the feeling of coldness. The production drags desperately in the second act and the fact that the programme notes wildly underestimate the running time suggest director Lindsay Posner assumed things would sprint along a lot faster than they do¹. The play itself occasionally threw up annoyances for me as well: Wilde had already had some success when he wrote it and at times his trademark witticisms feel repetitive - as if there's a "The only thing worse than A+B is B+A" formula. (Though the play also has a deliberate theme of lines being repeated in a different context, which does work.)
Fortunately the production has a surprise comic weapon in Elliot Cowan as Chiltern's best friend Arthur Goring, a layabout who's always got an answer for how to solve Chiltern and his wife's (Rachael Stirling, also very good) problems, only to get caught up in them himself as the third act's more farcical elements come into play. His increased presence in the second half of the play helps save what could have been an entirely disappointing evening and his comic reactions in particular are perfectly timed. Overall there's something a bit too cosy and traditional about the production that means it only really has any spark when Cowan's on stage.
An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde is booking until the 26th of February at the Vaudeville Theatre.
¹the running time is rather perversely listed as "2 hours 20 minutes plus a 20-minute interval" (the convention is to list the total running time including interval, certainly I didn't notice the difference when I first looked at the programme.) Even if we make that adjustment to 2hrs 40 though, the actual running time of almost 3 hours is still some way off-target.