London Assurance – May 2010

9/10

By Dion Boucicault

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Saturday 29th May 2010

The only reason this isn’t rated 10/10 is our unfortunate lateness, arriving half an hour after the start, and having to stand at the back of the circle till the interval. (A trespasser on the line between Haywards Heath and Three Bridges, or a suspected blockage in the Balcombe tunnel, depending on which of the many apologetic announcements you believe.) Even so, we were laughing loudly within a couple of minutes, at the servant, Cool’s comment ‘How polite. Must be a lawyer.’ And we kept on laughing, even before we took our seats for the second half.

It was good to see Simon Russell Beale giving us a fop again. It’s a good few years since his grounding in such roles at the RSC, and he hasn’t lost his touch, just refined it superbly with experience. His clothes weren’t as OTT as is usual with fops, but his affected mannerisms told the story just as well, possibly better. The way he threw a cushion to the floor in preparation for dramatically throwing himself on it in his pursuit of Lady Gay, was almost as funny as his pained expression when he did manage to collapse onto said cushion. There comes a time in life when romantic gestures have to become more restrained – Sir Harcourt is long past that time.

Fiona Shaw was perfect as Lady Gay Spanker – her entrance alone had both her and the audience hooting with laughter, never mind her excellent delivery of the lines. I would have loved to be closer to see her racing-commentator-style description of a recent steeplechase, but even from the gods it was good fun.

The set was just right, too. Enough detail to evoke the country squire’s manor, but not too fussy. The walls were a z-shape, with the inside portion showing us the drawing-room, and the other side, courtesy of the revolve, showing us the outside of the property. The hunting theme was established early on with lots of stuffed heads on the walls, and given that I know nothing about these things, I assume the furniture and costumes were period perfection – the NT knows how to do these things properly. Of course, we missed the earlier scenes in London, so I’ve no idea what that bit looked like; if we can get to see this again, I’ll be keen to get there on time to enjoy that part as well.

I believe I’ve described the story well enough in a previous set of notes, and although Richard Bean had assisted with some updates, there were no changes to the overall plot. The most notable updating was that Solomon Isaacs, the moneylender from whom Charles Courtly has been hiding, turns out to be from the East. Not Cheltenham, as one character suggests, but farther east than that. A gentleman of Chinese extraction, in fact. The look of surprise on the faces of the assembled throng were a joy to behold, with Lord Harcourt’s expression of astonishment topping them all. Before he leaves, Solomon Isaacs rounds it off by advertising that he’s willing to give anyone with money troubles a consolidated loan, interest-free for the first eighteen months. Lady Gay was quick to take a card, I noticed.

The other performances were also excellent. It was a shame Richard Briers had so little to do as Lady Gay’s husband, but he did all of it brilliantly. Matt Cross as Dazzle, the high-living, lower-class scrounger, doesn’t have so much to do after the start (which we missed), but we both enjoyed his contemporary-sounding ‘walk away’ lines when breaking up a fight. And all the rest were equally as good in this top-notch production.

One final moment to remember – the look of horrified astonishment from Sir Harcourt Courtly as his son, confessing his earlier deception in pretending to be Mr. Hastings, whipped off his glasses to show that he and Mr. Hastings are one and the same! Hilarious, and worth the price of a ticket on its own.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

London Assurance – June 2008

7/10

By Dion Boucicault

Directed by Nikolai Foster

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 20th June 2008

We would all have enjoyed this play a lot more with a better audience. One chap fell asleep and was snoring for most of the first half. As he was on his own, and surrounded by empty seats, there was nobody to give him a delicate nudge, and so it continued. The couple next to me took a while to settle down, preferring their own conversation to the offering on stage, and although one of them did turn her mobile phone off, she waited till the play had already started! The rest of the audience was remarkably quiet – although it does take a while to get into gear, the cast were working very hard, and there was more to enjoy in the first half than you would have guessed from the audience’s reactions. All in all not the best reception for what was a very good production of a dated but still entertaining play.

As it’s a touring production, the set was compact. Basically a large circle, there was plenty of room left on the Yvonne Arnaud stage. There were two French windows on either side of the central door, curving round the rear of the circle, and seats and tables were moved around to create the different settings. All very efficient. Backdrops gave us the general locale, and there may have been some other scenery behind the windows.

We’d seen this play before, at Chichester, but I couldn’t remember much until the play got going. Sir Harcourt Courtly has a son whom he believes to be very straight-laced and shy of company, thanks to the many and varied lies told to him by his servant, Cool. In truth, his son is the complete man-about town, staying out till the cows have come home, been milked, had a kip and gone out again. Like his father, he usually sees sunrise before bedtime.

As this is a comedy, there has to be some unusual circumstance to complicate matters. In this case, it’s the extraordinary set up whereby Sir Harcourt will regain the lands he mortgaged to his neighbour provided he marries the neighbour’s daughter, Grace. If Grace doesn’t marry him (and she does have a say in the matter), all the lands will revert to Sir Harcourt’s heir, i.e. his son, Charles. When Grace and Charles take an instant and serious liking to one another, the opportunities for confusion and a happy ending are set up at the same time, for when they meet, he’s pretending to be another man, Augustus Hastings. Although she sees through his imposture very quickly when the time comes for him to reappear as himself, she’s not going to give him an easy time of it. This situation, coupled with Sir Harcourt’s fancy to seduce another, married, lady only days before his wedding to Grace, give us the main comedy of the play. There’s some humour in one of the subplots – a wannabe lawyer who tries to persuade everyone else to sue someone so he can make money. He eavesdrops freely, and comments on the action, which led to some laughs, but although the performance was good, either the production or tonight’s audience let it down.

In fact, all the performances were good. Gerard Murphy gave us a fairly robust Sir Harcourt, and this set off his affectations nicely. Geraldine McNulty played Lady Gay Spanker really well. With a name like that the laughs should come easily anyway, but she went beyond the basics. So despite the difficulties, and my own tendency to nap a bit during the early stages, I enjoyed this performance very much.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me