Review: A Woman of No Importance (Alumnae Theatre)

Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance gets a modern Toronto twist at Alumnae Theatre

On Saturday night my friend Matt and I made our way to the Alumnae Theatre to catch a performance of Oscar Wilde‘s famous play A Woman of No Importance. As we entered the beautifully lit theatre, we saw three large window frames hanging from the ceiling with dozens of butterflies attached to strings directly behind them. Two actors stood on stage in period garb, one reading a book, the other embroidering.

After a quick glance at the program, I was then confused to read that the director had chosen to examine this play in the year 1985 to display how the same issues found in Oscar Wilde’s 1893 play are “as relevant today as ever.” But I decided to give director Mr. Paul Hardy the benefit of the doubt and was excited to see how this play would unfold.

A Woman of No Importance takes place in England where members of the upper classes have gathered for a weekend house party at Lady Hunstanton’s country estate. Drama and hilarity ensue as the men flirt with the women and the women flirt with the men, while others are merely trying to hang on to their husbands. When it is announced that Gerald Arbuthnot has been appointed as Illingworth’s secretary, his mother’s scandalous secret threatens to ruin her son’s success.

In terms of set and costumes, I’m not sure that this play really hit the mark. While I liked certain aspects of the design, my guest and I were of the opinion that it failed to come together successfully. It seemed as though the director had tried to meld the years 1893 and 1985 together for a postmodern and timeless effect, but instead it just left me confused.

The costumes, I assume, were meant to reflect the fashion of the 1980s but, with the exception of Lady Caroline Pontefract who was clearly stuck in a Michael Jackson music video, most of the other costumes, rather than serving the plot and helping to establish the era, environment and character, seemed too indistinctive and noncommittal. The set, I think, was meant to have period undertones but it was too neutral to know for sure. The whole thing was very ambiguous for me. As for the music, it seemed a little all over the map and didn’t serve the play in a positive way either.

The action on stage was, for the most part, engaging. There were some very entertaining performances and hilarious moments. Paula Schultz as Mrs. Allonby was truly amazing. Jason Thompson as the archdeacon, Daniel Staseff as the butler, and James Graham as Mr. Kelvil were particularly funny.

I did think, however, that the production lacked pacing, humour, and, at times, effective blocking. I thought there were pauses thrown in when the heated action seemed to call for urgency and speed. Actors moved around the stage occasionally unnecessarily and obvious choices were sometimes made in terms of acting. Mrs. Arbuthnot and Lady Caroline for example seemed to go through the entire play without ever cracking a smile, making for very heavy and one-dimensional performances.

Maybe I’m being unfair, but there were times where I had the urge to laugh but felt uncomfortable doing so. For example, I would have liked to have seen Mrs. Arbuthnot find the humour in her son’s request for her to marry the man that ruined her life. The audience certainly did, but our laughter was stifled by her harsh and predictable reaction.

That being said, this type of play doesn’t seem to be an easy undertaking. Wilde’s language is very intimidating and, while I’m no expert, I thought all the actors were successful in making it sound natural. I was also thoroughly impressed by everyone’s English accents! This was my first Alumnae Theatre experience and I’m curious to see what else this company will deliver.


  • A Woman of No Importance is playing until February 9th, 2013 at the Alumnae Theatre, 70 Berkeley Street, Toronto.
  • Shows run Wednesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
  • Tickets are $20, Wednesdays are 2 for 1, and Sundays PWYC.
  • Tickets are available by phone at 416-364-4170 (Box 1), online at or by e-mail at