Lord Arthur Savile's Crime

20th to 24th February 2024

Constance Cox based on Oscar Wilde | Lichfield Garrick Theatre | Directed by Lucy Dufaye

The wit and joy of Wilde’s language shines through in Lichfield Players’ latest production.

A short story first published in 1887, ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’ contains so many of the ingredients audiences would come to love in the plays of Oscar Wilde. It may seem like beautifully phrased nonsense but simmering under the surface of this murderous tale are characteristic criticisms of the upper classes.

This play version of the story, written by Constance Cox in the early 1950s, is based on Wilde’s story but is no straightforward adaptation. It reads and plays like a love letter to Wilde himself, peppered as it is with multiple references to his other works and including an entirely new character.

The ‘Lord Arthur’ of the title is an aristocratic type who, it seems, lives entirely for pleasure. Think Lord Goring in ‘An Ideal Husband’ or Algernon Moncrieff in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. He is engaged to be married to the delightfully sweet Sybil Merton, despite the disapproval of her mother, Lady Julia Merton. When Lord Arthur is told by a palm reader that he is destined to become a murderer he resolves to do what any self-respecting man of privilege and honour would do: murder someone poste-haste to avoid any future unpleasantness once married. It is a marvellously ridiculous idea and, in this hilarious production directed by Lucy Dufaye, treated with the utmost seriousness.

Stefan Dufaye is perfectly cast in the title role: his Lord Arthur is both earnest and charming in his desire to ‘pop off’ a relative as soon as possible so that he can marry his fiancée. It’s a central performance which holds the play together thanks to the sweet connection to Hannah Lewitt’s wide-eyed and adoring Sybil Merton. Lewitt’s deadpan delivery and knowing moments of melodrama are a joy.

The relationship between Arthur and Sybil is almost overshadowed by another favourite Wildean trope: the Lord and his servant. Baines the unshockable butler is a genius addition to the story and is brilliantly played here by Ian Davies. Towering over his master, he is both aloof and the closest person to Lord Arthur in the play. In perfectly clipped tones, Davies’ comic timing lands laughs every time. Their murderous plotting is delivered with the cool detachment of psychopaths but they speak so beautifully throughout the play that it’s impossible to condemn them.

Topping the list of family members in line for a spot of murder is Arthur’s great-aunt, Lady Clementina Beauchamp, played with warmth and wit by Adrienne Swallow. Sybil’s mother, a character who barely appears in the original short story, is haughty and detached in Rosemary Bodger’s wonderfully supercilious performance and Sarah Stanley is a marvellous Lady Windermere wielding her fan like a weapon.

Sporting a ridiculous silk turban, Rob Lewis is excellent as the cockney cheiromantist Mr Podgers and Chris Stanley is wonderfully natural as the forgetful Dean of Paddington, Lord Arthur’s uncle. Reprising the role after 35 years, Stephen Brunton is a delightfully daft Herr Winkelkopf, described in the cast list as ‘an anarchist’. Proving that there are indeed ‘no small parts, only small actors’, Abigail Skidmore puts in a promising performance as Nellie the maid.

There are moments in the second half involving exploding balls and umbrellas which feel too farcical for Wilde but this is a minor quibble and concerns the writing, not this production.

Wilde’s delicious language fizzes and froths throughout: an evening of marvellous melodrama and eloquent nonsense, beautifully performed. It would be a crime to miss it.

‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’ is playing at the Lichfield Garrick Theatre from 20th to 24th February 2024.