Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
July 20, 2018

With a play like An Ideal Husband, little more than just saying Oscar Wilde’s witty, insightful words is required for success. Add a good cast and beautiful costumes, and with any luck it will be a hit. Melbourne Theatre Company’s new production may well be just that, especially if the comic star power of Gina Riley as Lady Markby draws in the TV crowd. Arguably she and a few others try to do more with the scintillating dialogue than is necessary, but for a fun few hours of theatre, this is hard to beat.

Gina Riley and Simon Gleeson. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Premiering in London in 1895, An Ideal Husband explores public and private honour. Sir Robert Chiltern seems to have it all – wealth, a soaring political career, an adoring wife – until Mrs Cheveley appears. She blackmails him with a letter that reveals his success to be based on an act that was as dishonourable as it was criminal. His world hangs in the balance, not least his marriage, because the virtuous Lady Chiltern’s love for him is based on her belief that he is a paragon of virtue. Sir Robert’s friend, Lord Goring, is instrumental in the series of chance and strategic developments that avert disaster, thereby revealing the substance behind his veneer of dandyism. All the while, he engages in flirtatious banter with Sir Robert’s sister, Mabel.

Simon Gleeson is the dramatic centrepiece as Sir Robert. Measured and assured, he neatly conveys this ambitious but essentially good man’s emotional crisis. There’s not much spark between him and Zindzi Okenyo, perhaps because she plays his wife with a degree too much virtue and not enough adoration in the first half. This chilling effect does, however, make it easier to warm to Lady Chiltern when she begins questioning her moral absolutism, revealing a more complex character.

Brent Hill, Zindzi Okenyo and Simon Gleeson. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Brent Hill is the play’s comedic centrepiece, delivering Lord Goring’s aphorisms with charming ease and lightness, and revealing just enough of the warm heart that beats beneath his languid persona. He is only outshone by Christie Whelan Browne, who speaks and moves with graceful restraint as Mrs Cheveley. With a little pause here, a meaningful change of tone there, a look, a gesture, she lets those clever, dazzling words do the heavy lifting – though stunning costumes also contribute to her mesmerising performance.

Gina Riley is rather the opposite, and rightly so as Lady Markby is meant to be a highly comic character, but a touch more restraint probably would have made her performance funnier. Of course Riley is funny. It’s as if her snobby Trude of Kath and Kim fame were reborn as a Victorian London high society dame, overworking every word and posing for effect. Another overtly comic character, the delightfully frivolous Mabel, is nicely interpreted by Michelle Lim Davidson. Going toe-to-toe with Hill in the exchange of barbs tipped with love, she shows a similar lightness of touch, but with contrasting effervescence. William McInnes is always just the right side of ridiculous as the loudly cranky Earl of Caversham, Lord Goring’s father. A handful of others lend able support, though as the supplementary guests in Act 1’s party, they also tend to overplay Wilde’s dialogue – perhaps a slight misjudgement of direction by Dean Bryant, which sometimes weighs down a play that should ideally flow like a gorgeous length of silk.

Christie Whelan Browne. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Speaking of which, Dale Ferguson’s 33 late-Victorian costumes are exquisite – spectacularly so for Whelan Browne’s gowns, which have a heightened sense of style suitable for a confident woman using every trick in the book to get ahead. Conversely, the gowns and hats Riley dons have a mildly unattractive excess of everything, underscoring Lady Markby’s grandstanding. Overall, however, these costumes are an absolute visual pleasure, including the gents’ superbly tailored looks. Ferguson’s sets also make an impact with swathes of lush fabric that form curtains and virtual walls, giving a sense of substance to what are essentially simple, adaptable arrangements of elegant period furniture in bright, open spaces. The darker, closed-in intrigue of Act 3 and its two crucial doors is the appropriate exception to this simplicity.

The MTC’s latest take on Wilde is not quite ideal, but gets close enough to charm all but the curmudgeons. It’s a delicious comic treat, with a piquant kernel of timeless truth about human nature.

 Melbourne Theatre Company’s An Ideal Husband is at the Playhouse until August 18