When I began studying English theatre history half a century ago (I am still studying it), we read Dion Bouccicault's 1841 farce LONDON ASSURANCE. It was the only play we studied between the comedies of Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Sheridan and the work of Oscar Wilde. We learned tha the play was produced by Eliza Vestris at the Covent Garden Theatre (the site of the Royal Opera House) and was one of the first plays to use a box set instead of painted backdrops. On the page, LONDON ASSURANCE seemed formulaic -- comedy, more than any other dramatic form, needs to be seen -- but it still plays magnificently. The National Theatre has revived LONDON ASSURANCE and proven its worthy place between Goldsmith and Wilde. The play and production are hilarious. There are classic farce elements here -- a silly old man trying to wed a perky eighteen year old to secure his fortune; his wayward son also courting the girl; city toffs trying to survive a country visit; all-knowing, cynical servants. To this Boucicault adds his great comic invention, the raucus, horse-loving, life-affirming Lady Gay Spanker (one of the best character names in all drama).
A perfect cast mined all the gold there is out of this romp. Simon Russell Beale, made up to look even more portly than usual, made a magnificent middle-aged fop. Paul Ready and Michelle Terry were fine as the young lovers. The scene in which Ready's character tries to convince his father that he isn't his son was one of the funniest moments. Richard Briers doddered magnificently as Lady Gay's husband and Fiona Shaw was a perfect Lady Gay Spanker. I had never seen her play comedy before and was pleasantly surprised. Within the context of the piece, everyone was credible as well as comic. No one overtly "played for laughs" which would be death in a piece like this. The sets were superb on the Olivier's revolving stage and Nicholas Hytner paced the production perfectly.
It is too bad that LONDON ASSURANCE, which is a sellout hit, has to close at the end of June so Beale can go into a revival of DEATHRAP (why?????).
LONDON ASSURANCE by Dion Boucicault. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, designed by Mark Thompson. National Theatre Olivier Theatre. May 30, 2010.