Liza Goddard

A Woman of No Importance


King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

We all know what to expect from a play by Oscar Wilde, right? Lots of self-satisfied characters uttering verbal witticisms and arch remarks, as they view society from their well-uphostered perches. A Woman of No Importance, first performed in 1892, ticks all the boxes. Indeed, it’s so packed with memorable lines that I occasionally feel like I’m trapped in a book of theatrical quotes.

Lady Hunstanton (Liza Goddard) is hosting a soiree at her country house, and the great and the good are gathered for the occasion. The guests include American visitor, Miss Hester Worsely (Georgia Landers), and the odious Lord Illingworth (Mark Meadows), who prides himself on his rakish qualities. But when the mysterious Mrs Abuthnot (Katy Stephens) puts in a late appearance, it’s clear that she and Illingworth have previous history.  It turns out that they share a former connection that will have serious repercussions for Mrs Arbuthnot’s son, Gerald (Tim Gibson). He has just been offered the role of Lord Illingworth’s private secretary. Awkward.

This is a lavishly mounted production, but not everything works as well as it might. The decision to have elaborate scene changes covered by comic ditties by veteran performer Roy Hudd, in the role of Reverend Daubeny, seems to have been drafted in from an entirely different kind of production. It doesn’t help that I struggle to hear the lyrics of old favourites like Pretty Little Polly Perkins from Paddington Green – but, more importantly, these interludes seem to have nothing in common with the rest of the show. (I can almost imagine Oscar wincing in the wings as the songs unfold).

Despite this misstep, there are some strong performances here: Goddard is a delight as the endearingly forgetful Lady Hunstanton and Meadows entirely convincing as a thoroughly bad egg in dire need of a slapped face. Isla Blair is delightfully deadpan as the acid-tongued Lady Caroline Pontefract and Emma Amos excels as the rebellious Mrs Allenby.

The play itself is a bit of a mixed bag. Its heart is clearly in the right place and its defence of the inequalities of womanhood must have seemed positively groundbreaking when it was first performed – but there’s a prospensity too for over-sentimentality. Wilde’s evident belief that America was an innocent new world, where old indiscretions could be shrugged off and where promising new horizons beckoned, now feels ridiculously optimistic – but, of course, Oscar had his own reasons for hating his homeland’s interpretation of ‘morality’.

Fans of Mr Wilde – and there are many of them – should have a field day with this.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Sherlock Holmes: The Final Curtain


King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s November 1922 and Doctor Watson (Timothy Lightly) arrives at one of those new-fangled radio stations to talk about some of the cases he’s worked on with his old friend, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Powell). Unusually, he chooses to recount a case from the very end of their career and, via a surprisingly effective flashback device involving a slowly moving curtain, we are whisked to Devon, a few years earlier.

We find Holmes living in retirement where he is suffering from arthritis and devoting most of his spare time to two old hobbies, fly-fishing and bee-keeping. But when the dead body of a young woman is found on his private stretch of beach, Holmes simply cannot help putting in his six-penneth, even though he quickly discovers that he is already disconcertingly out of touch with the changing times. Then, he is paid an unexpected visit by Watson’s wife, Mary (Liza Goddard), who tells him that she has glimpsed the ghost of her dead son, James, back at 221B Baker Street. At first, Holmes is reluctant to return to his old haunt, but soon enough he’s there, where he learns that it’s not just the times that are changing. Watson is now dabbling in psychoanalysis and his relationship with Mary is strained to say the very least…

There’s lots to enjoy here – Powell and Goddard, seasoned stalwarts that they are, put in exemplary performances in the lead roles, the staging is rather splendidly done and it’s certainly an interesting idea to pit Holmes against unfamiliar technology, such as recording equipment, electric lighting and cinematography. If there’s a real problem, it lies with the script, which – though it does its best to incorporate classic lines from and references to the works of Conan Doyle – lacks the ingenuity and complexity of one of his labyrinthine plots. It’s dismaying, for instance, that our idle conjecture during the interval about a possible solution to the mystery turns out to be correct in every detail bar one – and that, only because the idea is so risible. It’s not that we’re great amateur sleuths, more that there simply aren’t many possibilities to choose from.

Holmes completists will certainly want to tick this one off their ‘to watch’ lists and it provides a decent evening’s entertainment – but playwrights do take on an immense weight of expectation when attempting to walk in the illustrious footsteps of Mr Conan Doyle and I’m not entirely convinced that The Final Curtain quite masters the challenge. But it’s fun watching somebody try.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney