“I didn’t imagine I’d ever find the countryside so amusing”
Dion Boucicault's 1844 play, London Assurance, the latest National Theatre production is a rip-roaring, farcical romp of a show that should leave even the most depressed Phantom of the Opera fan with a smile on their face. With a quality all-star ensemble: Simon Russell Beale, Fiona Shaw, Richard Briers, Michelle Terry, Paul Ready, all hamming it up for all they are worth, I can’t recommend this highly enough.
Sir Harcourt Courtly, a London socialite travels up to Gloucestershire, determined to procure himself a much younger wife-to-be, heiress Grace Harkaway, yet once there his head is turned by her cousin, Lady Gay Spanker, a forthright horse-riding fox-hunting Amazon of a woman. To further complicate matters, Sir Harcourt’s son Charles is also there, in disguise hiding from his creditors, and has fallen for Grace. Sensing the opportunity for merriment, Charles’ friend Richard Dazzle then colludes with Lady Gay to toy with the bumptious Sir Harcourt and lead him astray.
It’s all extremely silly, as one would expect from a Victorian farce and to describe this as hammy would be an insult to all things porcine. It is so over the top, but performed with such relish and humour that it is hard not to get swept along with it. Even the asides to the audience, something I have little time for usually, were expertly done.
The highlights are undoubtedly any time that Shaw and Russell Beale are together: they are pure comedy gold, and obviously relish their interactions, there were even a couple of moments where I thought one or the other might corpse, great fun! Fiona Shaw edged it for me, if only for her wonderful guffawing laugh which permeates the whole show, but also in her tenderness to her ageing husband (played by a doddering Richard Briers) which fleshes out the character. Simon Russell Beale is equally hysterical and there are moments when you suspect that he thinks he’s in a pantomime, such are the exaggerated mannerisms that he displays. Their costumes are fantastic, and I don’t want to say more than that, only that never have the publicity shots for a show here been less representative of what’s on stage!
As Grace, Sir Harcourt’s intended, Michelle Terry is excellent as ever, her comic timing really is superb, and with Paul Ready as the son with whom she falls in love, provided a gentler counter-balance to the sledgehammer antics of the lead couple. And elsewhere there were good performances from Nick Sampson as the arch manservant of Sir Harcourt, full of dry quips and raised eyebrows; Matt Cross as a warmly charming wideboy Dazzle, pulling the strings of all concerned with a consummate ease, and a hilarious late brief interjection from Jinx Inocian as a debt collector.
The set is an impressive country pile, utilising the Olivier’s revolve to flit between the outside and the sumptuously mounted interior, but they do thankfully keep the spinning down to a minimum. Music was performed on stage (including a tuba), but also kept on a subtle level, coming to the fore though during a fun country dancing sequence.
This is an extremely diverting evening at the theatre, and whilst one may not take away much from the experience, it is a thrilling, hilarious ride during it. Displaying a comfort with each other that is remarkable given this was the second preview, the ensemble is finely tuned to each others comic timing making this an absolute delight. Even a remote-controlled rat can’t ruin it!
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3
Labels: Fiona Shaw, Maggie Service, Mark Addy, Matt Cross, Michelle Terry, Nick Sampson, Paul Ready, Prasanna Puwanarajah, Richard Frame, Simon Russell Beale, Tony Jayawardena