Melissa Blease reviews Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, starring Edward Fox, Freddie Fox, Susan Hampshire, Nathaniel Parker, Frances Barber, Sally Bretton, on at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 4 August

Popular culture legend decrees that the American TV series’ Dallas and Dynasty were, to this day, the most extravagant, best and splendidly ridiculous of the prime-time soaps.

Almost eight decades before either hit our TV screens, however, An Ideal Husband premiered at the Haymarket Theatre London, just three months before the writer – Oscar Wilde – was arrested for ‘gross indecency’. Following the arrest, Wilde’s name was removed from the play, but An Ideal Husband lived on to become his second-most widely produced production after The Importance of Being Earnest. So what’s that got to do with Dallas?

Powerful men, gold-digging girls and wicked, wicked women; gossip, intrigue and corruption; farce, melodrama and fabulous costumes – forget the 1980s; long before Texas titillated our TV watching habits, Wilde’s expose of the impulses that drove London’s chattering classes was setting trends, upsetting social apple carts and outing all manner of previously well-hidden secrets.

If we’re to run with the Dallas analogy for a little while, government official Sir Robert Chiltern is a kinda Bobby Ewing: one gets the feeling that he may have been coerced into the secret, long-ago scandal to which he owes his success and fortune. Chiltern’s adoring wife is a bit of a Pamela Ewing: an innocent victim of circumstance. The idle, narcissistic aristo-dandy Lord Goring could easily be likened to vacuous Lucy Ewing (albeit a far, far more entertaining version), while his respectable father Lord Caversham is, in a similar fashion to Jock Ewing, the gatekeeper on a bridge that’s swiftly being built twixt time-honoured tradition and modern morals (or lack thereof). So far, so very engaging and entertaining. But the best character is yet to come.

This drama (and boy, it’s dramatic indeed) owes much of it’s power, plot and poetry to Mrs Laura Cheveley: the manipulative Machiavellian mistress of malice who’s out to plunder the Chiltern’s wealth with a canny blackmail plot: Mrs Cheveley is the JR Ewing of the early 1890s, dressed by Alexis Colby’s stylist. And so, we’re bang up to date.

This super-glamorous new production of a play that is today widely acknowledged to be Wilde’s dramatic masterpiece celebrates curtain-up on Theatre Royal Bath’s Summer Season, which has been trusted to the capable hands of artistic director Jonathan Church. The revival brings a roll call of classic British acting legends including two of the Fox dynasty – Edward and his son Freddie – Susan Hampshire, Nathaniel Parker, Frances Barber and Sally Bretton to Bath; hoorah!

It has to be said that this marvellous farce takes a little bit of time to warm up – if it wasn’t for Samuel Martin and his violin opening the scenes and the lush, plush detail of the costumes, and sets that bring those scenes to vivid, opulent life, it would be easy to allow your attention to wander. But when things do warm up, well, hold on to your horses…

The fabulous Foxes are a remarkable double act; the rapport between them is palpable in every one of their (all too few) scenes together. Every disgruntled grumble uttered by Fox Snr (the Earl of Caversham) serves to delightfully encourage Fox Jnr’s devilish ditzy dandy ways – if any actor was made for the role of Viscount Goring, it’s the Fantastic Mr Fox the Younger.

Susan Hampshire is utterly charming as Lady Markby, a woman who sees no reason for women to strive to be anything other than socially acceptable and ‘properly’ behaved at all the ‘right’ parties. As Sir Robert Chiltern – the rising politician with a murky, murky past – Nathaniel Parker is simply impeccable, giving us an up-close-and-personal insight into an ostensibly dignified man suddenly forced to mingle with the skeletons in his supposedly immaculate closet, while Sally Bretton (Lady Chiltern) is the ultimate modern woman: sensitive yet determined, supportive but most certainly no pushover.

But it’s Frances Barber as the ambitious, opportunistic, duplicitous Mrs Cheveley that is a delight to watch, not least because she gets many of the best lines, and all the most fabulous frocks. Viciously vile, sagaciously sexy and compellingly contemptible, she’s the foul femme fatale that puts Cruella de Vil, Mrs Danvers, Nurse Ratched et al in the shade; she is, quite simply, the corrupt, camp gift that keeps on giving, from first entrance to finale.

Power, greed and politics; marriage, money and class; feminism, misogyny and skewed morals – An Ideal Husband dances in, out and around themes that are as relevant today as they were when the play first premiered, moved along by Wildean repartee delivered at breakneck speed, and bon mots sprinkled about like stardust.

Not even the most over-the-top episode of Dallas could ever have been described as being this Wilde.

Main image: Freddie Fox as Viscount Goring and Michael Peters as Mr Montford in An Ideal Husband. Credit: Marc Brenner