Everyone is having a lot of fun in the National’s Olivier theatre at the moment. Silly walks, even sillier disguises, a remote control rat and a farcical plotline are providing much merriment for audiences and actors alike, and it is all courtesy of Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance.
Like hot soup on a cold day, this is a simple, hearty, spirit-raising play that sets out to put a smile on the face, and often succeeds. At the heart of the plot is Sir Harcourt Courtly, a delightfully self-regarding poseur for whom low self-esteem has never been an issue. Pushing 60 – though he claims to be 39 – Harcourt is to be betrothed to the 18-year-old Grace due to a financial agreement with her uncle, his friend Max. Not having met the girl, he goes to Max’s country pad to claim her hand. Meanwhile, Harcourt’s student son Charles – clearly doorknockers rather than traffic cones were the student’s theft of choice in the 19th century – who is fleeing from debtors and going under an assumed name, also arrives at Max’s estate with his newly acquired friend Dazzle. Last to enter the fray is Max’s friend Lady Gay Spanker and her doddery old husband. So Boucicault sets in motion an unapologetically silly chain of events in which Charles falls for Grace, Harcourt falls for Gay, Charles adopts a ‘disguise’ worthy of Clark Kent to fool his father and Mr Spanker chases them all with a worryingly wayward grip on his blunderbus.
Chief among silliness is Simon Russell Beale, who brazenly steals every scene he is in with his hilarious embodiment of Harcourt Courtly. Trussed up in the foppish finery which his London ways demand, with a toupee on his aging head, he arches his back, puffs up his rotund chest and struts around the stage like a preening peacock. Russell Beale makes Courtly an unashamedly camp caricature of a man, garnering huge laughs from the moment he makes his self-important entrance like a Z-list star at the premiere of someone else’s movie.
Coming a close second in the comedy stakes is Fiona Shaw as the hunting-obsessed Gay Spanker. Self-assured, heartily vigorous and always genial, Gay speaks mostly in hunting metaphors when she is not laughing her head off at the obvious weaknesses of the men around her.
London Assurance is a great play for actresses. Despite being written in 1841, it clearly proclaims its allegiance with the women in the play. While the men are either vain, stupid or weak, each female character is strong, feisty and independent, from the servant who briskly plucks a goose to Michelle Terry’s Grace, who is naturally more intelligent than her suitor Charles (Paul Ready), and Gay herself, who looks upon the farcical goings-on with an amused – though never haughty – superiority.
This all takes place on Mark Thompson’s impressive, multi-layered set which takes us speedily from Harcourt’s London pad to Max’s rural hunting lodge. Once there, a nifty stage revolve shows us both the idyllic, chocolate box exterior and the shabby-plush interior, adorned with hunting trophies, wooden beams and a dusty chandelier. The outline of the house is almost drawn in a cartoon style, emphasising the living caricatures that occupy it.
Strong support comes from Mark Addy as Max and Matt Cross as the wide boy Dazzle, while Richard Briers – worryingly, but appropriately, red of face and slow of movement – puts in a cameo as Mr Spanker. All of them seem to be having tremendous fun. But London Assurance belongs to the double-act of Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw, who make this theatrical soup a heartening one indeed. As the cold weather persists, the Olivier theatre is as good a place as any to warm the cockles.