30 March 2010

London Assurance - National Theatre, Monday 22nd March 2010

Sir Harcourt Courtley – Simon Russell Beale
Charles, his son – Paul Ready
Squire Harkaway – Mark Addey
Grace Harkaway, his niece – Michelle Terry
Mark Meddle, attorney – Tony Jayawardena
Cool: Nick Sampson
Lady Gay Spanker – Fiona Shaw
Mr. Adolphus Spanker, her husband – Richard Briers
Mr. Solomon Isaacs, Junix Inocian

Charles and Dazzle arrive back at Sir Harcourt's London home after a night on the town, and manage to avoid Sir Harcourt with Cool's help—Sir Harcourt still believes Charles is a clean-living innocent. Max arrives to make the final arrangements for Sir Harcourt's marriage to Max's niece Grace—by arrangement, Sir Harcourt has financially helped Max in return for making Grace's inheritance contingent on her marrying Sir Harcourt (if she does not, it will pass to Charles). Sir Harcourt leaves and Dazzle bumps into Max, gaining himself an invitation to Oak Hall, Max's country house—a trip on which Charles will accompany him.
At Oak Hall, Grace explains to her maid Pert her acceptance of marriage to the aged Sir Harcourt and her view of love as an "epidemic madness". Charles and Dazzle arrive, and the former (not knowing of his father's marriage plans) immediately starts courting Grace. When his father arrives, Charles pretends he is actually a man called Augustus Hamilton who merely bears a remarkable likeness to Charles.

Max's daughter Lady Gay Spanker and her husband Adolphus (“Dolly”) arrive, and Sir Harcourt immediately falls in love with the former. Grace begins to fall in love with Charles/Augustus in spite of herself and so, when Lady Gay interrupts their courtship, Charles easily persuades her to distract Sir Harcourt from marriage to Grace by apparently accepting his affections.

Charles leaves as 'Augustus', returning as Charles to tell Grace that 'Augustus' has been killed, to see if she really loves him, whilst Lady Gay and Sir Harcourt plan to “elope” together. However, Dolly and the meddling local lawyer Meddle manage to prevent the elopement.

Dolly challenges Sir Harcourt to a duel, but both of them escape alive, and all is revealed. Dolly forgives Gay and Sir Harcourt finds out his son's true nature as well as acceding to the marriage.
Well, what can I say? At least four stars, if not quite five. This is the sort of production that the National Theatre should be giving its customers – well written, well cast and well directed stuff that can pack out the Olivier auditorium night after night after night and send people home happier than they were when they arrived. “Classic” drama, yet not so “classic” that its been done to death and people are bored with it. A script that, despite being nearly 150 years old, is witty, fresh as paint and full of seemingly up-to-date references, produced in a traditional way with a top-notch cast. Forget David Hare and all his flash-in-the-pan stuff – this is what people want, which is proved by the fact that tickets are like gold dust for the rest of the run. I hadn’t been feeling on top of the world for a couple of weeks beforehand; the dregs of a long-running viral infection coupled with the truly lousy weather that passes for spring these days had left me feeling drained, chronically tired and frankly crabby, yet I came out of the National feeling better than I had done in weeks, simply because I’d enjoyed myself so much.

Lets have a look at the script first. Written by Irish playwright Dion Boucicoult in 1841, it hums with satire and social comment, very little of which (if indeed any) seems to have dated in any way. In fact, (and unusually) the date is mentioned in the text and, if changed accordingly, the play could easily be set in 1741 or 1941 – there’s more than an air of Congreve’s comedies about the play, although such wonderful lines as “90% of lawyers ruin things for the rest of us” could so easily refer to the modern world. In fact, with a change of costume, this play could be set in any period and still be funny and fresh. A sudden thought – it would have been fun to have had the costumes change gradually in period throughout the play, from Queen Anne all the way through to completely modern (I’ve seen operas done like this) and those not in the know would be hard pressed to pin down the script to any one period. That’s a sign of a great writer. And Boucicoult certainly knew how to make his audience laugh.

The set was the kind of thing I want to see at the theatre, yet rarely do. The first act was set in Sir Harcourt Courtly’s London home – an enormous Georgian house front for the street scene, followed by what was basically an enormous four-fold screen decorated in blues and whites and pierced with doors. This rose to reveal a complete late Jacobean mansion house, perfect in every detail, which revolved to show the interior, just like an enormous dolls house, with cornfields beyond. Lovely to look at on the rare occasions when my attention flagged slightly. Costumes were perfect in period detail, accurately reflecting the character of those wearing them. One clever touch I noticed was that Richard Briers’ tailcoat had been made with built-up shoulders, giving him that permanently stooped look that old codgers have.

There was some major master-class acting taking place. I’m not a huge fan of Simon Russell Beale, as regular readers will know. But I have to admit that he made this particular part completely his own, even down to the “leg acting” (which is where someone pays particular attention to the placement of his legs and feet in order to enhance a character). Richard Briers must be one of the few actors going who can make an audience laugh just by walking on stage; he played a tiny part but still nuanced every line of dialogue and body movement. Fiona Shaw played her role to perfection (think of the Sarah Ferguson puppet from “Spitting Image” and you won’t be far off). Giving a masterclass in how to take a miniscule part and completely dominate the stage with it was Nick Sampson as Cool, Sir Harcourt’s valet - a wonderfully detailed performance with great delivery. The way he stepped round a pile of dirt in the courtyard, just like an offended heron, will stay with me for a long time. The only disappointment was Tony Jayawardena’s Mr. Meddle, who didn’t really give any real performance worth speaking of. He seemed uncomfortable with the ridiculousness of the role and didn’t come across as anything other than a jobbing actor playing an admittedly unrewarding role.

To add to the near-perfection (my cup indeed runneth over) there is a radio-controlled rat. Even the quartet of musicians were well integrated into the action – their presence seemed natural and plausible and it was uplifting (and sadly unusual) to have them play for the bows at the end and for the play-out. The last time I remember this happening was at Much Ado About Nothing here a couple of years ago and it provided the perfect ending to a highly enjoyable night. In fact, I would quite happily go and see it again – and that’s something you very rarely hear me say on this blog!

What the critics said:





There were no YouTube clips really relevant to London Assurance, so instead I treat you to some pictures of the wonderful set and the costumes:

1 comment:

Roo said...

It's marvellous stuff. I think everyone is won over by SRB eventually. If he was a bit more of a media whore I thin he'd rapidly achieve National Treasure status. Oh, and he does cryptic crosswords which makes him a good bloke in my eyes.