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Review: UCATT, Lady Windemere’s Fan

A brilliant cast in the midst of some confusion

There is a Kacey Musgraves song playing. A glitterball hangs from the ceiling, dotting parts of the Corpus Playroom with light. A chaise longue and two chairs sit idle on stage – it feels like the slow end of a party, that time of night when drunk friends finally admit their feelings to each other, when dreams are made, when we can let our hair down.

And then the show starts, and out comes – the director? Strutting onto the Corpus stage in modern garb, Maya Yousif is Oscar Wilde (an overt nod to the playwright himself). 'Once Upon a Time…' she begins, with cliché melodrama in her voice. 'This isn't Lady Windemere's Fan' you think, and you're half-right. Breaking the fourth wall from the off, Yousif tells us that we're getting a behind-the-scenes look into the (re)creation of Oscar Wilde's classic, one that takes us into the 21st century: get ready for the ballroom to become the rave.

Within a couple of minutes, it is obvious enough what this ploy is; Yousif's O.W. represents the overeagerness of so many of today's directors to over-modernise, hoping to market their shows to younger audiences in the fear that they're not relatable just because they're old – just because they're classics. After all, as Yousif quips early on to her roomate Nick – played with the perfect level of awkward reluctance to O.W.'s whims by Max Harrison – 'they don't own a fitbit so why should I care?'.

And there's a genuine point to be made here; often, production teams can go too far in trying to make non-contemporary plays accessible for the sake of being accessible. These intermitting scenes, with chaotic rehearsal spaces and tired actors (I actually chortled at '4 years at RADA for this') all lead up to a moment in which O.W declares that it's not quite working and they'll do the rest of the play as it should be done – they'll leave it alone.

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Ella Blackburn as Mrs Erlynne, Anna Wright as Lady Windemere

The problem is that once it is announced the cast will return to the play proper, remnants of the first half still remain. Why, if we're now back in Wilde's world, is Lord Augustus walking onstage accompanied by the all-too well known chant 'Oooh, Jeremy Corbyn!' adapted to fit his name? Earlier in the play, within the realms of the parody making fun of this sort of decision, it would be the perfect sort of touch (such as having 'Margaret Thatcher' as Lord Windemere's laptop password – his wife shares the first name). But once the play has announced its return to the world of Wilde, it feels out of place, like the premise has forgotten its tonal change. These unfortunate confusions (a phone appears at one point in the scene) only serve to muddle what is trying to be said – doesn't it seem a bit futile after all this, to keep up with the facade when we're supposed to focus on the play once and for all?

This is all such a shame, for the cast really are superb – Anna Wright, with her doe-eyed, curious, yet rightly furious Lady Windemere has fantastic chemistry with all those around her: Joe Pieri's lovelorn and rather faaabulous Lord Darlington; Eduardo Strike's tortured and ever-loyal Lord Windemere; Ella Blackburn, playing both sides of Mrs Erlynne's slowly revealed character with such coy dexterity – they're a joy to watch as they bounce off one another with ease.

The more peripheral characters are great too. Special praise must be given to Benedict Clarke and Elliott Wright for their humorous flirtations (and more-than-flirtations), with Eliz Avni's Duchess of Berwick caught adorably in the middle of it all. The whole cast has an energy to be admired, and their time touring together is so evident on stage it's truly quite uplifting to watch. It is when the play centres on these relationships (predominantly in the sections which are Wilde's own) that the play excels above and beyond.

Perhaps it is that the parodic sections were not amped up enough – perhaps not enough focus was put on the play. Either way, it's unfortunate that the promising premise of this charming production weighed on such a fantastic cast; a cast of which I am a big, big fan.

3.5 Stars