By Ray Bennett
LONDON – First produced on the West End stage in 1841, Dublin-born playwright Dion Boucicault’s hilarious farce “London Assurance” is given its full measure in an uproarious production at the National Theatre that makes most modern comedies pale by comparison.
Set in the fanciful world of highfalutin and preposterous English life readily identifiable from the later works of Oscar Wilde and Evelyn Waugh, it combines great verbal wit with physical comedy of a high order delivered by a cast of sublime comedy actors.
Simon Russell Beale is at his incomparable best as Sir Harcourt Courtly, a rich, fat and flamboyant society peacock with a seldom-seen son named Charles (Paul Ready) whom he believes to be sober and industrious but is in fact a heavy-drinking wastrel.
Sir Harcourt (left) desires to take as his new bride a countrywoman he has yet to meet but is informed reliably that she is both comely and well off.
He heads straightway to the bucolic manor house of Squire Max Harkaway (Mark Addy), there to cement his engagement to the man’s niece Grace (Michelle Terry) while taking in some country air.
Unknown to Sir Harcourt, his son has already fetched up there in the company of a rough-and-ready London opportunist named Richard Dazzle (Matt Cross), but so distant is the relationship between father and son that the young man is able to disguise himself with the mere addition of a pair of spectacles.
Things become complicated when more guests arrive in the person of enthusiastically lusty horsewoman Lady Gay Spanker (Fiona Shaw, pictured) and her much put upon but wealthy husband Mr. Adolphus Spanker (Richard Briers).
Sparks fly when Sir Harcourt falls for Lady Gay and young Grace captivates his son. Razzle wheels and deals between the existing and would-be partners, and a snooping lawyer named Mark Meddle (Tony Jayawardena) is keen to exploit every situation.
Sir Harcourt’s ineffably smooth and cultured valet with the singular name of Cool (Nick Sampson) tries to keep a lid on everything, and under Nicholas Hytner’s witty and assured direction he ultimately succeeds. Not, however, before the audience is weeping with laughter.
Venue: National Theatre, runs through June 2; Cast: Simon Russell Beale, Fiona Shaw, Paul Ready, Matt Cross, Mark Addy, Michelle Terry, Richard Briers, Tony Jayawardena; Playwright: Dion Boucicault; Director: Nicholas Hytner; Set and costume designer: Mark Thompson; Lighting designer: Neil Austin; Sound designer: John Leonard; Music: Rachel Portman; Choreographer: John Leonard
This review appeared in The Hollywood Reporter. Photo by Catherine Ashmore