The third play in the Vaudeville Theatre’s Wilde season is also blessed with the redoubtable Susan Hampshire, relishing every line as the imperiously air-headed Lady Markby.
The intricate plot shows rising political star Sir Robert Chiltern (Nathaniel Parker) threatened by the revelation of a scandal from his past.
The threat arrives in the form of Mrs Cheveley (Frances Barber) who holds a letter proving Sir Robert sold a Cabinet secret in his youth to a scheming entrepreneur.
This enabled him to buy shares in the Suez Canal Company in advance of the British government’s purchase of the company, thus enriching them both.
Mrs Cheveley hopes to blackmail Sir Robert into reversing his decision to condemn a fraudulent scheme connected to an Argentinian canal in which she has invested.
Chiltern seems doomed to submit to Cheveley’s demands since exposure would ruin his career and his marriage to the hideously perfect Lady Chiltern (Sally Bretton) who views her husband as a model of propriety.
He confides in his best friend Lord Goring who recommends that he come clean and admit everything.
But Chiltern recoils in terror from the potential damage and succumbs to his own moral weakness.
These are not only bold and knotty themes but alarmingly timeless. Update the language and it could have been written last week.
With a set beautifully designed by Simon Higlett, it accelerates from elegant, frequently hilarious comedy drama to farce in the second half as Goring attempts to conceal a host of unwelcome visitors and characters talk at cross purposes.
Only Barber lets the side down by investing Mrs Cheveley with the cackling pantomime nuance of a wicked witch.
Barber is quite out of tune with the other performances and she in particular is conspicuously out-Foxed.
An Ideal Husband – Vaudeville Theatre, until July 14. Tickets: 0330 333 4814.
Then at Theatre Royal Bath until August 4. Tickets: 01225 448844