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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
LONDON ASSURANCE
at the National (Olivier)

TOWN AND COUNTRY
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Fiona Shaw, Paul Ready, Simon Russell Beale, Michelle Terry/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

I first made the delightful acquaintance of Dion Boucicault's early play, London Assurance, in 1972 in a production that starred Donald Sinden, Judi Dench and Elizabeth Spriggs.
 
A palpable hit in the season of 1841 when it premiered at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, it's a bucolic romp that satirises the lifestyles of town and country folk alike, involved in an elaborately contrived plot of mistaken identity and mistaken intentions.
 
The townies are represented by Sir Harcourt Courtly (Simon Russell Beale), a dandified and dedicated 57-year-old follower of fashion, and his son Charles (Paul Ready), a debauched, philandering, debt-incurring student whose deluded father mistakenly believes him to be of sterling moral character.
 
The country folk are led by Squire Max Harkaway (Mark Addy) in whose home most of the play is set, his pretty, perky niece Grace (Michelle Terry), the horsey, hunt-obsessed Lady Gay Spanker (Fiona Shaw), and her doddery old husband Adolphus (Richard Briers).
 
Also on hand are a motley collection of servants, including Sir Courtly's punctilious valet Cool (Nick Sampson), an opportunistic freeloader called Dazzle (Matt Cross) and Mark Meddle (Tony Jayawardena), a rundown lawyer always on the lookout for a prospective lawsuit.
 
Put them all together, add a dash of sexual intrigue, a soupcon of young love, shake vigorously and, well, you get the picture. Yet, while all the ingredients might be in place for an over-the-top farce, it takes a strong cast and some inventive direction to give it lift off.
 
Nicholas Hytner's staging at the Olivier, though a tad tentative on the first night, will certainly grow in confidence when the cast members settle comfortably into their colourful roles.
 
As the showiest of all the characters, Russell Beale, in the role I first saw played by the incomparable Donald Sinden, has a ball camping it up as the strutting peacock that is Sir Hartley.
 
Looking much younger than his supposed 57 years, forever striking designer poses, and with kiss curls effeminately adorning his pudgy face, he pilfers 80 percent of the evening's laughs. Sinden was equally funny, but without the campery—which, I surmise, is more what Boucicault intended.
 
The other showcase performance is less happily filled by Fiona Shaw, who, while she has her moments, does nothing to obliterate the memory of the divine Elizabeth Spriggs 38 years ago. I've never felt Shaw to be a natural comedienne, and there's a coarseness and slightly forced quality to the performance I could have done without. As conceived by Boucicault, Lady Gay is an exhilarating force of nature; as conceived by Ms Shaw, she tends to be a bit of a loose canon.
 
Paul Ready and Michelle Terry are fine as the young lovers. I enjoyed Richard Briers' old codger Spanker, thought Nick Sampson's valet Cool spot on, and felt the same towards Mark Addy's country squire and Matt Cross' opportunistic wide boy.
 
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