Two years ago today, as the pandemic geared up to do its worst, I started up a blog to list and review all forms of online theatre. Although there has been a return now to live performance (and with it my ability to review productions onstage) I still want to ensure that the super large performance space which is the world wide web continues to receive attention. So it was, I thought I would mark this anniversary by going back to one of the leaders in the whole field, the National Theatre’s At Home scheme which has attracted my attention more than a few times in the last 24 months. I recall seeing London Assurance at the Olivier way back in 2010. It was an absolute treat then and is so still, thanks to impeccable direction from Nick Hytner and a cast to die for.
The play is, in all but era, a throwback to Restoration Comedy aping the manners of high society, contrasting the town and country and displaying verbal flourishes replete with appropriate levels of wit. Dion Boucicault’s original hails from 1841 though it benefits from some textual revisions by Richard Bean the driving force behind the later collaboration and mega success with Hytner for One Man Two Guvnors. The somewhat standard plot centres round the ridiculously affected Sir Harcourt Hartley, a baronet in search of money which he means to get by marrying in the right direction. The opportunity for this presents itself in the shape of 18 year old Grace Harkaway who lives in Gloucestershire with her uncle Max – the local squire. Sir Harcourt travels to the country to meet his bride to be only to become besotted with her neighbouring cousin. But that’s probably OK, because Grace would rather be with Hartley’s somewhat wastrel son who is posing as someone else and….well you get the picture. To be honest I didn’t really bother with the plot, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone else spending time on it either.
Rather simply revel in the glorious characterisations and impeccable delivery of the five star cast in the shape of Simon Russell Beale, Fiona Shaw, Mark Addy, Richard Briers, Paul Ready and Michelle Terry all of whom are on top form. And none more so than SRB whose Sir Harcourt dresses like a peacock, wears black eyeliner and ridiculously claims to be 39 when he’s clearly 57. It’s a masterclass in how to do this sort of comedy as he knowingly engages the audience with fixed stares, strikes a series of what used to be called “attitudes” and lets the aphorisms drip like honey from his lips. Almost, though not quite, reaching the same dizzying heights is Fiona Shaw as whinnying horseperson of the year, Lady Gay Spanker – and if there’s a more telling and resonant character name than that in the whole of dramatic literature I’d like to know what that is. Shaw is a female Jorrocks by way of Thelwell with overtones of Joyce Grenfell who drives the action on whenever it looks in danger of flagging. It’s an ideal pairing and when Shaw and Russell Beale are together for a simply hilarious wooing scene, then we are truly in comedy nirvana.
Michelle Terry and Paul Ready (now actually real life partners) are also excellent as the young love interest transcending the usual tropes and emerging with something far more appealing. Terry, in particular, eschews the customary juve lead approach and creates a character of vigour and determination. In a couple of more minor roles Tony Jayawardena engages as grasping lawyer Meddle and Nick Sampson outJeeves Jeeves with his dry ripostes as the aptly named Cool. There’s also a lovely cameo from the much missed Richard Briers as doddery Adolphus (Dolly) Spanker. If casting is 80% of getting a successful production up and running then Hytner is to be congratulated on his choices.
The whole production is sumptuous with Mark Thompson having a total triumph in the design department evoking the beau monde world of Belgravia and the more bucolic Gloucestershire. The Olivier’s revolve is put to capital use. Costuming is equally appealing with some gorgeous silks and brocade much in evidence. SRB’s baggy white pantaloons and varicoloured waistcoats evoking a slightly earlier era of the Regency (another sure fire sign that Sir Harcourt is older than he lets on). Indeed, the entire production team deserve high praise.
As we move into cold weather again, with rising living costs and a war raging in Europe, London Assurance is the proverbial blast of fresh air. Unlike Sir Harcourt, it lacks any sense of pretension other than to amuse and entertain and succeeds spectacularly. If you’ve yet to engage with National Theatre At Home here’s just one reason why you absolutely should.