Friday, March 12, 2010

Sometimes it does you good to leave the city... especially from a stalls seat in the Olivier Theatre.

Earlier this week Owen and I saw the last preview of Nicholas Hytner's revival of Dion Boucicault's comedy of manners LONDON ASSURANCE.

It was an evening of revisits... the first time I had been back to my beloved Olivier since the rather woeful NATION and it was a welcome return to the work of Boucicault whose epic comedy THE SHAUGHRAUN worked so well in the Olivier back in day - bejesus it was 22 years ago!!

As the programme notes, Boucicault seems to be the bridge from the post-Restoration comedies of Congreve and Sheridan to the 'modern' works of Wilde and Shaw. It is certainly worth noting that these five playwrights were all Irish - Congreve was born in England but raised and educated in Ireland.

Boucicault's plays usually have a highly theatrical style, teeming with larger-than-life characters sweeping through melodramatic plots with hissable villains and fainting heroines.

He had started out as an actor then tried his hand at writing. Three years later he presented a farce to Charles Matthews who co-ran the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden company who advised him to try his hand at a comedy dealing with 'modern life'. The result was LONDON ASSURANCE which was staged in 1841 to an immediate success. This set him off on a life of roaring success and crashing failures, several debatable marriages, the initiation of copyrights for authors and box-office royalties. His life would make a great play!

The play has been given a textual revision (!) by Richard Bean which I presume has given it a slight update but the plot is pure post-Restoration: the vain and overbearing Sir Harcourt Courtly has a large London townhouse, a wardrobe of outlandishly modern clothes, an idea of his own importance and a bank account running low on funds.He shares his house with his son Charles who he believes to be a studious and mild lad although Charles sneaks out nightly for a life of drinking and gambling. Sir Harcourt is arranging with his landowner friend Max to marry his 18 year old niece Grace but this means Courtly - to his horror - has to venture into deepest Gloucestershire to close the deal! Little does he know that Charles is also on his way thanks to Max extending an invitation to the cockney chancer Dazzle who helped Charles home that morning!
Once there, the practical Grace is appalled at the overdone Sir Harcourt but finds herself to be falling in love with a young stranger - yes you guessed Charles in disguise! Another spanner is thrown in the romantic works with the arrival of the gloriously named Lady Gay Spanker, a country wife addicted to hunting who Sir Harcourt is soon making a play for - despite the presence of her geriatric husband. Complications ensue...

Nicholas Hytner keeps the pace going at a rapid rate, buffaloing over some of the more dodgy plotting to build up a frenzy of fun and bringing out the best in his fine ensemble.
Nick Sampson steals every scene he is in as Courtly's unflappable butler Cool - a career awaits him for all those gentleman's gentleman roles not played since the loss of Gielgud! Matt Cross also makes a big impression as Dazzle the flyboy floating through life on his wits. Mark Addy too made a real impact as Max, the avuncular country householder.

Michelle Terry followed up her role as Helena in last year's ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL with a sparky performance as Grace, another resourceful young woman. She was ably partnered on stage by Paul Ready as Charles, again following up on his fine performance in last year's less-than-great TIME AND THE CONWAYS. There was an effective cameo from Richard Briers as the doddery but game Mr. Spanker.

Ruling over the evening however is the killer-diller duo of Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw.
Simon Russell Beale came to prominence in the 1980s playing over-made-up fops in several RSC restoration comedies so this is familiar territory to him - but by God he is wonderful at it. He cut an outrageous figure, first in a flowing brocade dressing gown and then in a purple cutaway all topped off with suspiciously dark curls, he mines seams of comedy with ease. He timed his laughs with the preciseness of Mussolini's timetables - especially when telling Max about how his wife ran off with his best friend *beat* *beat* "And I miss him". Another memorable performance.
Fiona Shaw isn't an actress I usually go out of my way to see but back in 1983 I saw her on the Olivier stage in her debut as Julia in Sheridan's THE RIVALS and it's a joy to see her return to High Comedy from the wastelands of The Waste Land and Mother Courage. I suspect most actresses would let the name - Lady Gay Spanker - do most of her work for her but Shaw is intelligent enough to seek out the character too and gives us a rambuncious, cigar-smoking, whisky-swigging, good-humoured lady of the land - the scenes between her and Beale are easily the high points of the evening.

Mark Thompson's sets are a delight and the whole production has a timeless gusto that will keep the Olivier Theatre busy for some time.

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