by Dion Boucicault.
Olivier Theatre Upper Ground South Bank SE1 9PX To 2 June 2010.
Runs: 2hr 40min One interval.
TICKETS 020 7452 3000.
Review: Carole Woddis 9 March 9.
Suitably assured revival.
In the programme for this revival of Dion Boucicault’s 1841 London Assurance, Irish writer and critic Fintan O’Toole mischievously observes that many of the playwrights who have provided English theatre with their great comedy classics – Congreve, Farquhar, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Wilde, Bernard Shaw – were Irishmen. Perhaps the greatest joke they’ve ever played on us is to have taken over English theatre’s comedy repertoire.
On an only slightly more serious note, the fact that they have produced such classics may not be unconnected to the advantage they exercised as outsiders, looking in on the eccentricities of English behaviour.
Nowhere does that vantage point reap richer rewards than in London Assurance – a glorious satire on 19th century fashionable London and the bucolic pleasures of the rural gentry, both taken for a ride by a quick-witted opportunist-outsider, Dazzle.
Boucicault also created in it parts that any actor might die for – big, bushy caricatures such as Sir Harcourt Courtly, the preening, middle-aged London socialite fop, and Lady Gay Spanker – there’s a name to conjure with – with her passion for hunting.
Back in 1970, the RSC’s revival by Ronald Eyre, with Donald Sinden as Sir Harcourt and Judi Dench as Grace Harkaway, the Gloucestershire heiress Harcourt hopes to marry, proved a runaway hit.
There’s no reason to suppose that Nicholas Hytner’s warm-hearted production will have any less success given that his Courtly is Simon Russell Beale and the merry horsewoman Fiona Shaw. It also has Richard Briers as the senile but very funny Spanker husband, Adolphus, growling like an old cur and bringing the house down.
Michelle Terry makes a feisty, intelligent Grace – the one sane character in the ensuing mayhem – but it is Russell Beale and Shaw’s night. They might have been born to play the “index of fashion” as Russell Beale, pouting and curlicued like a cross between a roman cherub and Beau Brummell, and Shaw, periwigged and bedecked in wondrous swathes of brightly-coloured marquée material, indulge in hysterical seduction.
Nick Sampson as Courtly’s valet Cool, too, is perfection – unblinking fastidiousness personified. It should keep the shires giggling for months to come.
Cool: Nick Sampson.
Martin: Richard Frame.
Charles Courtly: Paul Ready.
Richard Dazzle Matt Cross.
Sir Harcourt Courtly, Bart: Simon Russell Beale.
Squire Max Harkaway: Mark Addy.
Pert: Maggie Service.
James: Simon Markey.
Grace Harkaway: Michelle Terry.
Mark Meddle: Tony Jayawardena.
Lady Gay Spanker: Fiona Shaw.
Mr Adolphus Spanker: Richard Briers.
Mr Solomon Isaacs: Junix Inocian.
Doctor: David Whitworth.
Servants: Mark Extance, Prasanna Puwanarajah.
Doctor’s daughters: Fiona Drummond, Laura Matthews.
Director: Nicholas Hytner.
Designer: Mark Thompson.
Lighting: Neil Austin.
Sound: John Leonard.
Music: Rachel Portman.
Musical Director: Ian Watson.
Choreographer: Scarlett Mackmin.
Company Voice work: Jeannette Nelson.