REVIEW: A Woman of No Importance at Cambridge Arts Theatre - Roy Hudd is a master of the wry expression

Isla Blair and Roy Hudd in A Woman of No Importance at Cambridge Arts Theatre

Isla Blair and Roy Hudd in A Woman of No Importance at Cambridge Arts Theatre - Credit: Archant

Roy Hudd is an absolute joy and comes out front to sing comic songs

This is a brave play. Our heroine has a baby out of wedlock the 1890s - and she gets the best speeches.

Interesting then, that during the interval, the press table were swapping stories about the horrific treatment of girls then called "unmarried mothers" in the 1960s and 1970s.

These young women were sneered at by everyone, disowned by their parents and treated as if they were the worst kind of criminal. Most of all, it was drummed into them that they were the last people fit to bring up a child.

What kept other girls chaste was the fear and dread of joining them. It is difficult now to imagine that depth of shame - even for those of us who were there.

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A Woman of No Importance, written in the century before, is a call to arms. How unjust it says, it is that when it comes to that arbitrary code we call morals, women are regarded so vastly differently from men - especially by other women.

Wilde was ahead of his time and so was his audience. The play was a hit in London and New York. The then Prince of Wales told Wilde not to alter a word of it.

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Ironically, it was Wilde's own disgrace, when he went on trial for gross indecency, that stopped the play going on tour.

But serious as it is, the piece is laced with humour and has many of the witty quotes beloved of Wilde plus some gorgeous lesser known ones: "I have never heard of him. That speaks volumes about a man these days" and "Women making fools of men... that is never necessary."

This production adds lightness by casting Roy Hudd as the bumbling Reverend Daubeny and giving him more things to do than he has in the script. During scene changes, he comes out front to sing comic songs accompanied by some of the cast on musical instruments.

We joined in the chorus of Pretty Polly Perkins of Paddington Green and hearing The Dark Girl Dressed in Blue was a wonderful treat for those of us who remember hearing it on The Home Service in the 1950s.

Hudd is an absolutely joy, a master of the wry expression and the funny turn.

There are good, understated comic performances too from Isla Blair as Lady Caroline Pontefract and Liza Goddard as Lady Hunstanton.

Katy Stephens is moving as Mrs Arbuthnot and Tim Gibson strong as her all-innocent and earnest son, Gerald.

Just a quibble about the costume. Since our single and singular mum, Mrs Arbuthnot, has gone to such pains to keep her secret for 20 years, why would she arrive at a house after dinner with her hair down, and wearing no gloves and no jewellery as if she was about to go to bed?

Possibly, it is a deliberate decision to make her look "other" but surely, that spoils the reveal, so I am not going to worry about revealing the reveal here.

An interesting evening.

A Woman of No Importance is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, October 12.

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