London Assurance @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Simon Russell Beale, Fiona Shaw, Richard Briers, Paul Ready, Michelle Terry, Mark Addy, Matt Cross, Fiona Drummond, Mark Extrance, Richard Frame, Junix Inocian, Tony Jayawardena, Simon Markey, Laura Matthews, Prasanna Puwanarajah, Nick Sampson, Maggie Service, David Whitworth

directed by
Nicholas Hytner
Just as in The Importance of Being Earnest, which it pre-dates by half a century, Dion Boucicaults 1841 comedy really hits its stride when it shifts its focus from the town to the country.

A brilliantly be-wigged Simon Russell Beale plays Sir Harcourt Courtly, a perfumed, urban fop forced to abandon his Belgravia townhouse for the wilds of Gloucestershire – for it is here that he is due to marry down-to-earth teenage heiress, Grace Harkaway.

Inevitably his path to matrimony is beset by numerous obstacles. The first of which is his own son Charles, who fleeing his creditors, shows up ‘in disguise’ and promptly falls for Grace.
Sir Harcourt, meanwhile, has had his head turned by the horsewhip-wielding huntress, Lady Gay Spanker, played with requisite vigour and a huge, hooting laugh, by Fiona Shaw.

Theres a playful aspect to their relationship which both actors revel in. Beales Sir Harcourt flounces around in his silks and ruffles, and shudders with disgust at the rusticity of country life (theres a lovely cameo by a rat), but is overcome with – seemingly reciprocated – sexual longing for Lady Spanker to the point where he has to employ a strategically placed cushion. Later, when planning their ‘elopement’ and donning disguises, it is Beale who picks a Little Bo-Peep bonnet while Shaw opts for the topper and Abraham Lincoln chin whiskers.

Though their performances dominate the production and draw the most laughs, they are backed up by an excellent supporting cast. Paul Ready is suitably caddish as Charles, whose attempts to wheedle his way into Graces affections are as implausible as they are unscrupulous. Michelle Terry is equally amusing as Grace, who though fully aware of his scheming is happy to play along. Richard Briers, as Lady Spanker’s beloved, quivering, battle-damaged husband, Dolly, gets a round of entrance applause simply for showing up.

Though very entertaining, London Assurance is not that great a play; its mechanical and lacking in the verbal dash of the other Irish playwrights cited in the programme, yet it contains some strong comic set pieces and some very pleasing moments. In fact, though it draws heavily on the conventions of Restoration comedy, it feels rather fresh and forward-looking in places. The scene where Grace and a cigar-smoking Lady Spanker, having been made to leave the men alone after dinner, sit and listen to the Madeira-fuelled carousing going on above them is a pleasant surprise, as is the unusual level of control and complicity given to the female characters.

The material is duly milked for every possible laugh by Nicholas Hytners glossy production. He embraces the silliness of the plot, revels in it, ramps it up. Even a potentially dubious sequence about Charles creditor Solomon Isaacs, instead of being washed over, is played up and turned on its head.

The acting is as big and unsubtle as the text demands. Though there are plenty of double-takes and eye rolls, there’s an art to such mugging and, for the most part, a good balance is struck.

Mark Thompson’s revolving set is handsome and functional, depicting both the inetrior and exterior of the Harkaways’ country abode, but this is an actors’ production, a chance to let rip, to cast aside nuance and shading, to wink and grimace and hoot and bellow, which the cast do with an enthusiam that pours out into the audience. It would take a very hard heart indeed not to go home feeling brighter.

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