THIS Rolls Royce of English comedies, An Ideal Husband, sees Frances Barber star alongside real-life father and son Edward Fox and Freddie Fox, Susan Hampshire, Nathaniel Parker and Sally Bretton, in a new production of one of Wilde’s finest dramatic works directed by Jonathan Church.

Frances Barber stars as Mrs Cheveley. Her theatre work includes many productions in the West End, at the National Theatre and with the RSC, including the role of Goneril in King Lear alongside Ian McKellen in 2007.

Well known on television as Caroline Warwick QC in Silk, Madame Kovarian in Doctor Who and Ginny in The Spa, Anna in Real Women and for her many roles in Sky Arts’ all-star sketch show PsychobitchesFrances’s film credits include The Escape, The Bookshop, Prick Up Your Ears, The Missionary, Clem and the 2018 film Blue Iguana with Sam Rockwell. She chats to the Adver ahead of the show.

What are you most enjoying about playing Mrs Cheveley?

I’ve always loved Oscar Wilde. I studied him, like everybody did, at school and college but I’ve never been in any of his plays before. What I love is how he loves women so much. He kind of got there before everybody else and understood that men – particularly in the world he inhabited because he was gay – were all hypocrites. He adored his mother, who was a strong, fantastic, formidable presence in his life and he just got women. He loved them, he revered them and he understood that they were the sort of centre of what we should all strive to be – which is smart, clever, witty. Lady Markby has that wonderful line about man: ‘He has got as far as he can, and that is not far, is it?’ I do believe that was Wilde’s philosophy. It was tinged, also, because he wanted to be part of that milieu, that British society, but because he was Irish and an outsider they never really accepted him and he ended up in jail, as we know. It was a love-hate relationship he had with the British establishment and therefore in his writing he took every opportunity he could to go ‘dig, dig’ at them. I think he used strong women as his mouthpiece and Mrs Cheveley is certainly that – a woman on her own, at that time, going from husband to husband just to have a nice life, that’s quite a thing, isn’t it?

What do you feel makes the play resonate for contemporary audiences?

I’m a newshound and I just get depressed, like the rest of the country, because God knows what’s going on and clearly nothing has changed in the 123 years since the play was first produced. All the stuff about the insider trading of the Suez Canal shares etc, we read about that kind of thing every day; the contemporariness of the writing when it comes to immigration with Lady Markby saying ‘The fact is that our Society is terribly over-populated’, lines like ‘Scandals used to lend charm, or at least interest, to a man - now they crush him’... It’s so resonant it could have been written yesterday. It’s quite breath-taking. During rehearsals we were all taken aback by how nothing’s really changed. In a way it’s reassuring and in a way it’s deeply depressing. We still live in a corrupt universe so Wilde certainly hit on something, didn’t he?

You have some fantastically flamboyant costumes. How do they reflect the character you’re playing?

The first thing we see is a ball and everybody is dressed to the nines. They talk about Mrs Cheveley coming up the stairs in the most extraordinary gown and she says to the young Miss Chiltern ‘Oh, your frock was so charming, it was so simple’. It’s all about ‘Look at me’ and showing off wealth. It’s about being a peacock. She’s in this heliotrope gown and because she’s lived on the Continent it’s very different to the English gowns. They’re all a little more covered-up and she comes in baring her shoulders, baring her bosom, in this extravagant gown. It’s all about ‘I have wealth and I’m happy to show off my body and I’m a force to be reckoned with’. It’s like the Prada catwalk. The costumes, the lavish sets, the ornate furniture – they’re all very important because she’s trying to bring down a man who has amassed a huge amount of wealth by selling a Cabinet secret. He’s living a lie and she says ‘You’ve got a splendid position... Look at how much wealth you’ve got’ but it’s all been achieved by illegal means.

With Rupert Everett playing Wilde in cinemas in The Happy Prince, why do you feel he continues to fascinate people and why do you think his work has endured?

It’s all those things we’ve just been talking about because his work is so contemporary. He was cocking a snook at the establishment. Danny Dyer has become a hero for speaking his mind about David Cameron and Brexit. We’re fed up because nobody is speaking on our behalf and we don’t know what to do. We know we’re in a terrible situation and we’re powerless. Wilde, with his eminent wit and mastery of sword-play in terms of his language, was able to pierce the veneer of snobbery and falsehoods. He was able to do that with his rapier wit and I think there are two reasons he and his work are still so revered: he speaks for the ordinary man, albeit in a very extravagant way, and we’re so bogged down with politics and with wondering what the hell is going on that it’s wonderful to be able to go into a theatre for three hours and have wit, glamour and a happy ending.

The production has such a stellar cast. Have you worked with any of them before?

I’ve worked with Nathaniel Parker on the radio and I know Freddie Fox socially. I’d never worked with Edward Fox before but I absolutely adore him. Susan Hampshire too. We’re lucky because it’s a really lovely cast. We’re a very happy company and [laughs] you can’t always say that.

How is it working opposite Freddie Fox as Viscount Goring?

Freddie’s gorgeous and a joy to work with. He loves acting. It’s in his blood, it’s the dynasty. Anything we try differently, he’s always there coming back and he’s always got a little smile behind his twinkly eyes.

How is it working with director Jonathan Church, Artistic Director of Theatre Royal Bath’s Summer Season?

I worked with Jonathan when he was very young at Hampstead many, many years ago but this is the first time I’ve worked with him since he’s become such a huge director and he’s fantastic. I remember going to see his Amadeus starring Rupert Everett. It’s a difficult play to stage but it was so fantastically done. He knows how to put on a spectacle. Our show begins with a ball and you really believe it’s happening. He’s terrific and we’re all very thrilled we’ve gotten the chance to work with him. He’s done a great job.

You’re well known for playing Caroline Warwick QC in Silk. What did you most relish about that experience?

Those kinds of characters are the most interesting to play. She had her own demons, not unlike Mrs Cheveley, and they’re always more interesting than the goodie-two-shoes characters.

l An Ideal Husband runs from July 18 to August 4 at Theatre Royal, Bath

She had a drink problem and who knows what was going on in her private life? It’s such a pity that we didn’t continue because I think there are so many other things we could have explored, but Peter [Moffat, the creator and head writer] wanted to go on to other things because he’d done three series and wanted to do something else. It’s a shame because the audiences adored it and I still get letters all the time asking if it’s coming back. Again it’s an area of real fascination for people, the judiciary, and again the costumes are very important. The costumes are designed to kind of intimidate and they work. I’ve been to the Old Bailey many times to watch trials. When I was doing Silk I’d go along a lot and as a result of doing the show I’ve been invited along by various QCs because they like watching themselves on telly and they like showing off in the courtroom. It’s endlessly fascinating because it is intimidating because of the wigs and the gowns, the huge red robes – it’s all pageantry and I think originally it was designed to keep the plebs in their place but it’s also stating ‘You can’t come into this courtroom and not take it seriously, you are on oath and if you don’t tell the truth you’ll go to prison’. That happens again and again, even with people like Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken, those who we see as the establishment. They can’t get away with it and the judiciary is above anything that happens in the Houses of Parliament.

You also played Madame Kovarian in Doctor Who, who was a complex and striking character. That must have been fun to play?

I loved Doctor Who and I loved playing opposite Matt Smith. He’s like Freddie, such a great guy to play off. He loves playing around and doing different things. I thought he was a great Doctor Who because Matt could look 20 or 400; he’s got one of those faces that are so extraordinary to look at. And I’m very much looking forward to Jodie Whittaker in the role. At long last we have a female Doctor Who so I can’t wait for that.

Your theatre career spans almost 40 years. What do you most love about performing on stage?

Most actors would say the same thing: Once you’re in the middle of doing something it’s just that discipline. Last year I did a lot of filming and a very short run of a play [Madame Rubinstein] with Miriam Margolyes at the Park Theatre and it gave me a sort of taster because I hadn’t been on stage doing a long run for a good while. It’s a different kind of discipline. You can’t stay out all night, you have to rest your voice, it’s like a version of getting ready for a marathon. We’re looking forward to being in Bath with An Ideal Husband because it’s the first time we’ll be able to go out for company meals because everyone lives so far away. Doing the show in London, we haven’t tended to hang out because people maybe have families and they go home after a performance.

What have been your career highlights to date?

I try to be in the present because I don’t know what’s round the corner and at the moment this is my favourite job. I’m so lucky that I’ve worked with amazing people like Ian McKellen and Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi who have become close friends. Ian and I did King Lear for a year going around the world and he’s about to do it in London again so, as he’s taught me, there’s never a definitive ‘Oh, I’ve done that then’. There’s always another way of doing something so I’d love to have another crack at Cleopatra. I think I’ve got another one of those in me somewhere.

What can you tell us about Blue Iguana, the film you recently made with Sam Rockwell?

I’m very happy to tell you that Sam is one of the most charming actors I’ve ever worked with. I have to say I went into it a little blindsided by not really quite understanding who I was working with, because it was when he was known on the indie circuit but not as famous as he’s since become [because of his Oscar win this year for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri], but he could not have been more delightful. It’s a heist film, a caper, and I’m the sort of Mafioso boss where you’re not quite sure what’s going on and she’s the evil centre of it. I’ve got another film coming out called Trick Or Treat where I’m a Mafia boss up in Blackpool who is perfectly capable of cutting people’s fingers off and enjoying it. [Laughs] I quite like these parts.

An Ideal Husband marks the first time you’ll be performing at the Theatre Royal Bath since Uncle Vanya 22 years ago...

You’re absolutely right. It was 22 years ago and I’d forgotten that. Well done! That’s the last time I performed in Bath but I love Bath and I’ve been back there quite often. I do a lot of audio books and there’s a studio there that I’ve worked in five or six times. Walking through the city in the mornings and having a bite to eat is lovely and I’ve been there at Christmas when they have all the markets. I’ve been telling the kids in the company who’ve never been to Bath ‘You’re going to be blown away because it’s so beautiful’. I can’t wait to be back because it genuinely is one of my favourite places in England. I think it’s gorgeous and you’re quite right, I’d totally forgotten that we’d done Uncle Vanya there but it’s all coming back to me now.

Direct from the West End, Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband visits the Theatre Royal Bath exclusively appearing from Wednesday 18th July to Saturday 4th August as part of the 2018 Summer Season. To purchase tickets contact the Theatre Royal Bath Box Office on 01225 448844 or visit