Review – London Assurance – National Theatre

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London Assurance, at the National Theater, marks the first time I have ever gone to a show based on a character’s name. I’ve got no natural attraction to early 19th century works; farce can too often seemed forced; but there was nothing I could do to resist the lure of a “Lady Gay Spanker.” My God. The comedy value of that moniker alone had me gaping. And, when sales for the season opened, I saw that it was very substantially sold out for nearly all of the early run. What did these people know that I didn’t? A farce in which a Gay Spanker pretends to seduce an aging fop suddenly aquired an unbearable attraction for me. Oh National Theater, take me away to the land of laughs!

But, well, then, come show night (second preview), I had second thoughts. The Olivier! Ever stained by Fram, still holding on to Nation! I saw my night of easy laughs suddenly burdened by the worries of _two intervals_ (and the poison of a really long day at work). Gah! I imagined myself dragging along from scene to scene, begging for release from my prison. At least I had aisle seats, and in the very last row, so I could easily run out if needed.

As it turns out, my fear of farce were unwarranted. The stilted jokes and heavy-handed hipness of Man of Mode, the lack of laughs in The Misanthrope (at the Comedy), all were washed over by the gleeful giggles elicited by a show scripted nearly at the level of The Importance of Being Earnest – instead, all the promise of the line “when Lady Spanker discovers the young couple, she needs little prompting from the visiting chancer Dazzle to lead Sir Harcourt astray,” was in every way achieved.

With this showcase for top comic actors, the National reasserted itself as a venue that can get together a cast that does it all right, down to the second butler. I only regret I didn’t pony up for better tickets so that I could have enjoyed it more, because the actors’ comic reactions were making it all the way to the last row, making me wish I’d been able to admire them from closer. And they stuck to one interval and a 10:15 exeunt – hurray! (In fact I’d misread the program about there being two intervals in the first place, so my bad.)

Enough of my fawning. The story, in short, involves an arranged marriage, a young heiress, debtors, rakes, an aged, egotistical fop, and a country house setting, and the requisite double identity (not to mention a false beard). Sir Harcourt Courtley (Simon Russell Beale), is perfect as a fat, painfully vain man who sees himself as a catch for an eighteen-year old. Despite the burden of what seemed like an excessively silly script, Beale managed to do it all without becoming ridiculous – or, rather, he made his character as utterly and completely ridiculous as he deserved to be, pulling laughs the second he walked on the stage with his impossibly over the top and yet perfect posing and posturing.

While his son Charles Court (Paul Ready) is both amusing as a drunk and then fairly comic as a smitten swain reduced to a double identity to dupe his father – and then his new love, Grace Harkaway (Michelle Terry) – neither member of the young couple can hold a candle to the brilliant, braying Lady Gay Spanker (Fiona Shaw), whose hysterical lines about hunting, marriage, men, and whistling to call your husband had me guffawing and hee-hawing myself. I was both admiring how good she looked in her period-perfect costumes and totally buying her character as a one-woman party in riding boots. She was both a shining string of diamonds as an actress and an utterly delightful character – I can’t remember ever seeing such an independent, self-directed woman pre-Shaw – and when Shaw and Beale are on stage together, PHWOOM! I can’t imagine how it could have been better.

Sure, the set up of the play was ludicrous from the start, but when you take great dialogue and give it a wriggling mass of top-drawer talent to perform it, it’s suddenly clear why this play ran for ages and ages when it first opened. The National has graced it with a flexible but not overdesigned set, appropriate but inobtrusive music, and some good staging that only faltered when the mechanical rat in the last scene ran out of batteries before he managed to scare Sir Harcourt Courtley out of his last bout of self-admiration. Nearly 200 years later, this play is still perfectly attuned to English comic sensitivities, and for a really good, “forget your troubles, forget your cares” night out, London Assurance can’t be beat.

(This review is for the second preview, which took place on March 2nd, 2010. The official opening is March 10th. The show runs at least through June. For reviews from a variety of reviewers, please see UpTheWestEnd.Com – it’s a short list at present but they will keep updating it as the dailies start to publish theirs.)

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5 Responses to “Review – London Assurance – National Theatre”

  1. Cassiopeia Says:

    Totally agree, even down to the wishing I’d bought a better ticket to get a better view of the action. I adored Fiona Shaw, and though Simon Russell Beale is sometimes, I feel, a little overrated, he was brilliantly funny in this. Overall a great success! 😀 Xxxc

  2. Anne Says:

    Thanks for the review! It sounds like a good show, but what’s with that rat?
    I’m dead-scared of those creatures, and if it looks only vaguely realistic, it would spoil the whole play for me.
    Can you reassure me on that?
    Thanks! xx

  3. Review – White Guard – National Theater « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] not a fan of Russian drama or a National Theater completist, please just go next door and watch London Assurance, which is so much better I can hardly believe I saw them both in the same building. Well, okay, […]

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