“Absolutely worth the detour up the hill and will light up your early winter evening with intrigue and laughter…
The play opens on a social gathering at the Chilterns’ house, with a stage design that is overall simple, but whose minute attention to props succeeds in making it feel inhabited. Kate Moore’s directorial vision places the action at floor level, with the audience on either side of the stage. This is an apt choice, visually bringing the play’s setting of Victorian high society and themes of political corruption to a palatable level, even immersing the audience in the characters’ primary challenge of needing to conceal some aspect of their situation. At some point, the audience inevitably finds itself unable to see everything the actors are doing. An ambitious gambit, it is achieved democratically (there is always a couch on the side of the stage, and it is moved from one to the other before each of the four acts, so that every audience member gets the same amount of obstructed visibility), and pays off: the actors are always audible, and the truly crucial moments of visual acting, such as the climactic third act confrontation between Lord Goring and Mrs Cheveley, are made standing, are blocked to be visible to the entire audience. The scene is animated with a colourful cast of minor characters. Annie Gidney and Noelle Munes as the Countess of Basildon and Mrs Marchmont bring the script’s comedy to life with their gloriously serious delivery of their characters’ Victorian comments. Perhaps the true standout of this first act is the Vicomte de Nanjac, played by Helen Gierhake. For this part, the actor puts on a convincing thick French accent which highlights the character’s self-importance to great comedic effect. Matthew McConkey makes his first appearance as Lord Caversham, the disappointed father to the memorable Lord Goring (Amelia Blamphin). Emma Henderson also swoops in as Lady Markby. McConkey and Henderson’s performances of these cynical elders are devilishly entertaining, and never let the audience wait too long for their next laugh.
The central plot revolves around Robert Chiltern (Laurence Davidson), a model member of parliament, whose past comes back to haunt him when his wife’s former classmate, Mrs Cheveley (Elizabeth Sykes), threatens to make public a letter from his youth, in which he sold a Cabinet secret about the construction of the Suez Canal for a small fortune, unless he publicly endorses an unethical scheme to build a canal in Argentina. The revelation would destroy his reputation and his marriage to Gertrude (Daisy Summerfield), a stalwart woman who is uncompromisingly strong. As a politician who made his fortune through unethical means, Robert is a character who could easily come across as unsympathetic to twenty-first century sensibilities, but Davidson’s portrayal strikes an emotional balance that demands compassion. His scenes with Summerfield transpire with a mutual adoration that roots the Chilterns’ conflict in the domestic far more so than the public. Summerfield’s Gertrude is another standout. She is not merely the play’s unwavering moral fibre, she is also its soul. Her stage presence seeped in principles and love so genuine, it comes as no surprise the strength of the Chiltern marriage does not waver.
Blamphin’s Lord Goring is a triumph. A bachelor and a dandy, Goring does trade his devil-may-care attitude for care and sincerity whenever the Chilterns require it. Blamphin is delightfully sarcastic and incisive, shameless in the character’s slouching posture, and overall thrilling to watch. The scenes between Goring and Gertrude are imbued with great platonic affection, and those with Mabel (Pearl D’Souza) reveal a sweetness in both of these flamboyant characters, without sacrificing wit for the sake of sentiment. Some of the exchanges between Goring and Robert could have done with more of the play’s otherwise relentless dynamism, but ultimately, a serious tone is appropriate for these high-stakes moments, and any brief lag there is quickly salvaged. Blamphin and Sykes also work remarkably well together, convincing in their dynamic as former lovers and all the complexities attached to their situation.
In a few instances, the actors tripped over their lines, momentarily breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief, but the show went on, and out of these few slips in a very long script, most were barely noticeable. This is a well-crafted, high-calibre production. In terms of visuals, the lighting (Willow Raynor, Alex McCalmont) alternates between warm, natural colouring, and blue and pink shades in the characters’ more intimate moments, also contributing to the sense of moving between settings already present in the changing stage design.
An Ideal Husband is absolutely worth the detour up the hill and will light up your early winter evening with intrigue and laughter.
By Cass Baumann
Photo Credits: The Snowglobe Theatre Company