Written by Dion Boucicault when he was just 20, 'London Assurance' was first produced in 1841 at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Boucicault was something of a jack of all trades in the theatre world, taking on the roles of playwright, actor, producer and manager at various points in his career.
Set in Belgravia and Gloucestershire in 1841,'London Assurance' is a farce and as a result the plot takes liberties with both logic and common-sense in more or less equal measure. But since that is the nature of the beast, you either take it or leave it. I didn't find the unbelievability of the storyline really detracted – in fact if anything it enhances the humour.
The play opens at the fashionable Belgravia home of Sir Harcourt Courtly (played by Simon Russell Beale). Unbeknown to Sir Harcourt, his son Charles is a rake who spends every night getting legless. The servants – led by the valet, Cool - cover for Charles, risking their positions. Sir Harcourt thinks himself a fashionable gent, though his outlandish clothes and flamboyant poses suggest something of a split personality in terms of his sexuality. This is given more credence when he tells us that his best friend ran off with his wife and he adds “and I miss him”.
Sir Harcourt is about to be married to Grace, a young woman of 18 who lives in the country in Gloucestershire. The unlikely marriage is prompted by a complex land settlement, by which Sir Harcourt is about to gain a pretty young wife as well a substantial inheritance. But once at the country home of his soon-to-be wife, things start to go wrong as Sir Harcourt is attracted to the rather masculine and oddly-named Lady Gay Spanker, and son Charles falls in love with his soon-to-be step-mother.
What really makes this play great entertainment is that the actors have so much fun playing it. In fact, one almost feels that any of them could corpse at any moment, if only their professionalism was allowed to slip even a little. It doesn't of course, but it seems like they are all teetering on something of a knife-edge, taking the jokes as far as they can without boiling over. It's all kept in excellent check though by director Nicholas Hytner, who maintains the necessary good order whilst leaving the actors room to enjoy their roles and make the most of their characters.
Fiona Shaw is the hunt-loving, whisky-downing, thigh-slapping, cigar-smoking Lady Gay Spanker who one suspects would love to be permanently mounted on a hunter and surrounded by a pack of hounds. Ms Shaw gives a delightfully wicked performance as she toys with the affections of Sir Harcourt and giving knowing nods and winks to Grace as she falls for Charles. Simon Russell Beale is in substantial form complete with rotund stomach and dressed like a peacock. Richard Briers is Lady Gay's dithering and grunting old husband whose sexual desires have to be restrained with regular doses of medicine. And Nick Sampson is the perfect valet, emanating refined loyalty and adopting an elegant poise in standing with his feet at right angles, even in the curtain calls.
Mark Thompson's impressive set design contrasts a grand and fashionable Belgravia house with a more homely and detailed country seat in Oldbury, Gloucestershire.
Revivals of nineteenth century comedies don't often work nearly as well as this new version of 'London Assurance'. There seems to have been some judicious additions to the dialogue if my reading of the original is correct, but that actually enhances the play and keeps it fresh. In particular, there's a reference to credit which has ample resonance given the events over the last couple of years in the banking industry.
Apparently, Boucicault said 'There's more money to be made from guano than from poetry' and his observations may well still be right. But this revival really isn't anything closely approximating to guano, it's a rollickingly funny play, and well-worth seeing if you can still get hold of a ticket.
"Deliriously funny revival."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Boucicault's old comedy is no masterpiece but, performed as vibrantly as here, it fills the Olivier with present laughter."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"This is an absolute corker of a production...The whole show is a joy from start to finish."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Hytner’s production is wickedly entertaining."
Henry Hitchings's for The Evening Standard
"Riotous, unpretentious fun.."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail