Posts Tagged ‘Paul Ready’

Review – London Assurance – National Theatre

March 4, 2010

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.)

Review – Time and the Conways – National Theatre

July 10, 2009

On Tuesday I had the good fortune of getting to see the National Theatre’s production of Time and the Conways for a mere £10. It had received a positive review from the West End Whingers, but its 3 hour running time – and, admittedly, cost – had put me off. However, with an offer for £10 tickets in hand, I decided to overcome my reservations and go see this show.

I’m glad I made the effort: for all its running time is longer than I can usually manage on school nights, Time and the Conways is a good show, despite having a director who apparently didn’t quite trust the words to make good theater and a second act that suffers from some seriously ham-fisted acting.

The family’s evolving relationships, shown in act-
length flashes (1919, 1939, and again 1919) were fascinating. Though it was heartbreaking to see people who seemed to love each other (act 1) so much brought down by spite and ego in the second act (1939), it made the third act ring more truthfully. There may have been a moment in time when all of the members of the family enjoyed each other’s company and were full of hope for the future; but once the lens of the future and its failings was put into your eyes, it was impossible to see the joys of the final 1919 scene looking rosy (and a good thing too as it was practically dripping with sap in Act 1). In fact, 1919 had the painful nostalgia I associate with looking at cherry blossoms in Japan – an appreciation for lovely things whose time will soon pass. And birthday girl Kay (Hattie Morahan)’s vision of what the future will hold for her family … I couldn’t tell if she was suffering because of what she knew or because she was wanting to undo it.

The shortcomings of this play were twofold. First, at times the acting was just “too too.” I couldn’t decide if Joan (Lisa Jackson) was pretending to be a person who liked to act like she was in a movie (as it seemed in Act One) or if the script actually called for her to make her character look like a silly numpty who had to overdramatize her feelings; at any rate, it was painful to watch. I also disliked most of the cast’s “aged” versions of themselves in act 2. Madge (Fenella Woolgar) had gone all floppy and slouchy, while Kay, who’d spent all of Act 1 being luminous and agile, suddenly looked like she had a pole thrust at an angle from her shoulderblades and hipbones and was attempting to convey 40 by standing at an angle and holding a cigarette. Adrian Scarborough, as Ernest Beevers, was, however, perfect as a short bully who had come into money as he had always hoped – but I found the evolution of his wife, the former Hazel Conway (Lydia Leonard). Perhaps his character had, in fact, changed very little, but I couldn’t fathom Hazel as the broken creature of act 2. (I think Priestly is to blame on this point, mostly.)

More annoying, however, was the director (Rupert Goold)’s ridiculous showy “end of act” moments that treated the audience as if they had no ability to think and process the words of the script and possibly had only ever seen movies before. The end of act 2 “mirror dance,” in which (I think) Kay attempts to convey the concept of living in multiple times simultaneously, was an ugly bit of choreography and wholly unnecessary. Worse than this was the end of act 3, in which Kay and her brother Alan (Paul Ready) do another sort of dance with video projections of themselves. I frequently loathe relying on cinematic innovations for theater; I feel like it shows a lack of trust in the text and is, in fact, a way of trying to do something in a simple and dull way rather than letting theatrical magic (the suspension of disbelief) take place. Much like A.I., this play would have been so much better if it had just stopped at the proper ending place instead of sitting there and beating us on the head to make sure we understood what Priestly was trying to do. Shame on you, Rupert Goold – just because you have the budget and the equipment doesn’t mean you should do it.

This was, however, probably only 5 or so minutes of the entire play, so I think I can give it a recommendation overall. A bit overproduced, as shows at the National sometimes are, but Time and the Conways is a strong script that has performances (and a story) strong enough to compensate for its shortcomings. I was lucky to get tickets for £10, but I think it would certainly be worth paying more to see it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, July 7th, 2009. It continues through August 16th.)