The mid-nineteenth century is pretty much the doldrums of British drama; between Sheridan and, really, Oscar Wilde the pickings are slim and the figures far from towering. Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance, which has just been revived for the Olivier Theatre, is automatically something of a tall midget in being one of the most celebrated plays of the 1840s.
In dramatic terms, it’s fairly simplistic and comes out of an age when characters were not called upon to demonstrate more than one aspect to their personalities and tended conveniently to announce their types through their names. Boucicault accordingly gives us the foppish, fashionable Sir Harcourt Courtly and the interfering lawyer Mr Meddle (though exuberant horsewoman Lady Gay Spanker probably seemed a bit more wholesome in 1841).
The plot is a standard issue comedy of manners, revolving around Sir Harcourt’s trip to the country to take a much younger wife. The writing doesn’t have much more depth than the dramatis personae, but does a relentless job of piling on every comic complication imaginable. By the middle of Act 3, everyone seems to be deceiving everyone else and not a conversation goes by without somebody else to overhear from a hiding place. The clunkiness with which some of the complications are contrived – there’s a particularly ludicrous will invoked, which seems to have been written by an elderly relative with a love for farce determined to indulge himself even in death – is tempered by the exuberance with which multiple plot lines are piled up. It’s also a refreshing change that the young romantics, usually the most colourless members of any cast, are themselves allowed to be zestily deceitful and to take chunks out of each other with all the gusto of the more purely comical characters. Ultimately, though, the play amounts to nothing more than an elaborate sitcom with no higher aim than to entertain.
Its success on the stage, then, relies entirely on its production. Nicholas Hytner’s direction is unobtrusively efficient and the staging is grand enough, just about, to justify the Olivier stage without feeling lost. The setting and design are generally realist and period appropriate, with the odd flash of expensive stagecraft to justify the ticket prices (See a goose, plucked onstage! See a house with a working chimney!). The cast are called upon to breathe life into the whole enterprise, and meet with mixed success. Most of the members of the company go through the comic motions briskly, if unexceptionally; Mark Addy is a suitably bluff Squire Harkaway, and Richard Briers makes the most out of an extended cameo. Fiona Shaw tears into her part with obvious gusto and seems delighted to be playing a straightforward, likeable person for a change.
The weak link is Matt Cross, playing the mercurial Mr Dazzle, who seems to inhabit a different world from the rest of the cast, and who is saddled with the painful accent known as RSC Cockney, generally heard on any Shakespearean character who speaks prose. He grates where he should charm and lovable roguishness comes across as weaselly cheating. He is countered, though, and the rest of the cast put pretty much in the shade, by Simon Russell Beale’s extraordinary Sir Harcourt. Bloated and red-faced, like an over-ripe plum poured into waistcoat and pantaloons, yet daintily convinced of his own grace and beauty, he’s a masterclass of comic acting and is ruthlessly funny both physically and verbally. As an actor he is totally without vanity, which allows him to make Sir Harcourt’s own self-regard painfully, wonderfully misplaced whether he’s showing off his dancing form or plying his seductive charm. Whenever he’s on stage, which happily is for much of the play, the whole enterprise takes glorious flight. When he’s away, though, the edges begin to fray and everything seems slightly mechanical; it’s not so much heartless as a bit pointless.