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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Michelle Terry and Simon Russell Beale/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

When the nineteenth century Irish-born playwright and manager Dion Boucicault toured America with his wife, Agnes Robertson, he established the vogue of “the sensation scene” in melodrama with his hit play The Poor of New York, in which an unscrupulous banker ruined a family who were then rescued from a burning building.
No such conflagration or disaster accompanies the characters in London Assurance, the play that made his name in London in 1841, but the dynamic of what is essentially a social document rather than a scintillating comedy derives from greed. Sir Harcourt Courtly leaves London for the countryside in order to land a new young wife with a handsome dowry.

He doesn’t succeed; his own, more suitable but vaguely dissolute son, Charles, falls in love with the pert 18-year-old, Grace Harkaway, while Sir Harcourt becomes embroiled in a spot of hanky-panky with a married huntswoman, Lady Gay Spanker, whose doddery husband still has the sound of gunshot ringing in his ears from the sack of Copenhagen in 1807.
Nicholas Hytner’s revival of a once-famous play, forgotten until revived by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970, is mellow, unbuttoned and highly enjoyable, traditionally designed by Mark Thompson, with a black-and-white, classical free-standing view of Belgravia yielding to the stone Elizabethan fastness of Oak Hall in Gloucestershire and its cosy interior of beams and stuffed stag heads.
But while the show is a vast improvement on a Chichester Festival revival by Sam Mendes in 1989, and is clearly conceived as a vehicle for Simon Russell Beale to gleam inanely as the witless Sir Harcourt, it does seem a low-pressure, low-ambition event for a National Theatre production. One should expect the NT to be more adventurous in the Regency and Victorian repertoire.
Boucicault’s text is not sacred, and not really of much literary worth, but the ear is still offended when a meddling lawyer (Tony Jayawardena) invites an altercation with the ejaculation, “Come on, my son!” And Russell Beale’s finest aside – one that conveys an air of befuddled bisexuality simply not in the role as written – comes with his improvised rider to the information that his first wife eloped with his best friend – “and I miss him.”
Russell Beale made his mark playing a series of fops as the RSC’s “resident poof” (his words) in Restoration comedy. His Sir Harcourt is a masterful study in bovine self-deception, tempered with the experience of playing more complex roles, so you get a fully rounded – he resembles a large be-quiffed barrel in a waistcoat – portrait, a full ten years younger than the part as written – he owns to being 53, not 63 – but no less ridiculous.
And his robust exchanges with Fiona Shaw’s Lady Gay, who becomes a rampaging, whinnying animal herself when describing the joys of riding to hounds on a frisky horse, are at the centre of the play’s good humour and lubricious high spirits. Russell Beale gets to his knees on a cushion before standing painfully to attention and using the same cushion to conceal his agitated groin.
Such crudity would have been anathema to the manners of the day and indeed Donald Sinden, whose RSC Sir Harcourt (opposite Elizabeth Spriggs’s definitive Lady Gay and Judi Dench’s charming Grace) was an explosive poseur in Regency stripes and monocle, very like Beau Brummel; and very different from Russell Beale’s slyly insinuating take on social poise and vulnerability.
Michelle Terry is an assertive, rather than an attractive, Grace, and although Nick Sampson is a marvelously disdainful valet to Sir Harcourt (“If he continues to conduct himself in this absurd manner, I shall be compelled to dismiss him”) and Mark Addy a bluff and likeable country squire, some of the other support performances are colourless and stylistically unsure. It’s left to the veteran Richard Briers to embody the unforced comic element in his seraphic, amnesiac rambling around the stage as old Spanker.   



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