Theatre review: London Assurance

Posted on: 25 March 2010 by Mark O'haire

Laurence Green reviews Nicholas Hytner’s glorious revival of Dion Boucicault’s sparkling 1841 comedy of manners London Assurance.

The contrast between city sophistication and rustic guile is strongly conveyed in Nicholas Hytner’s glorious revival Dion Boucicault’s sparkling 1841 comedy of manners London Assurance (NT’s Olivier auditorium).

Ageing fop Sir Harcourt Courtly is lured away from the epicentre of fashionable London by the promise of a rich and beautiful bride, Grace, several decade his junior. Arriving at Oak Hall, Gloucestershire, he marvels at this rural Venus until her charms are eclipsed by her hearty cousin, the foxhunting Lady Gay Spanker. Meanwhile his disguised, dissolute son Charles turns up in flight from his creditors and falls head over heals for Grace. When Lady Spanker discovers the young couple, she needs little prompting from the visiting chancer Dassle, a friend of Charles, to lead Sir Harcourt astray.

Actor, playwright, adapter, stage director, manager, producer and innovator, the Irish-born Boucicault was for almost 50 years the most important and influential man of the theatre on both sides of the Atlantic. He wrote or adapted 250 plays, bridging the gap between the comedies of Farquhar, Congreve, Sheridan and Goldsmith and those of Wilde, Shaw, Synge and O’Casey. But London Assurance was his biggest success and for which he will be best remembered.

Although this play could be described as lightweight, sub-Restoration farce, it becomes in Nicholas Hytner’s stylish and ebullient production a night of sheer comic bliss. I will long remember the hilarious scene in which Sir Harcourt gets down on his knees on a cushion to woo the woman with whom he has become smitten, the alarmingly named Lady Gay Spanker. The play is also intriguing in the way it shows how two independent-minded, astute women run rings round their two male suitors.

Simon Russell Beale gives a superb performance and appears to be entirely in his element as the vain, self-satisfied and imperious man of mode, Sir Harcourt, while Fiona Shaw matches him with gusto as the cigar chomping, thigh-slapping Lady Gay. They receive fine support from a splendid NT cast, of whom Paul Ready as Charles, Michelle Terry as Grace, Richard Briers as Adolphus Spanker, Lady Gay’s doddery old husband, and Nick Sampson as Cool, the all knowing but tactful valet, stand out.

Mark Thompson’s evocative design of both Sir Harcourt’s magnificent house in Belgravia and a stately country pile with an impressive interior, adds much to the atmosphere and realism of the piece.

This marvellous mixture of rumbustious romp and rustic romance which shows that anyone can become a convincing society gentleman or lady if they acquire the right social etiquette, marks another triumph for the National Theatre.

By Laurence Green

Where: National Theatre’s Olivier auditorium

When: plays until 2 June

Box Office:  020 7452 3333

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