Last May, we went to the National Theatre for a revival of London Assurance, an early Victorian comedy by Dion Boucicault (1841). The play received consistently good notices and we can see why. Although far from a perfect play, the revival was terrifically funny from start to finish.
I am not going to give too many details of the convoluted plot, suffice to say the play has many elements of classic comedy including mistaken identities, elaborate deceptions, vanity, over-the-top characters and a slightly contrived happy ending which manages to tie up all the loose ends. If formulaic, however, the play is also very witty (see some quotes below) and comparing the original to the revival, we can see that the director has made some well judged contemporary updates, which accentuate the humour for modern audience.
Still, it was the cast that brought the jokes to life. The two stars of the show, Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw (the latter we have also watched in Mother Courage and Her Children), were both extremely funny. Beale, playing a vain yet aging London socialite Lord Harcourt Courtly, was captivating (as you can see, the characters’ names mirror their personality). He imbued Courtly with an exaggerated effeminacy, which would fall completely flat with a less skilled actor. Yet, with Beale, Harcourt’s every gesture was hilarious. Shaw was no slouch herself. She brought her characteristic vitality and energy to Lady Gay Spanker. The moments between the two were some of the strongest in the play, especially a scene in which Lord Harcourt proposed to Lady Gay, by comically throwing a pillow onto the ground so he could kneel on it without hurting himself. Some of the other stand-outs included Nick Sampson as Cool, the sardonic valet and Richard Briers as Mr Adolphus Spanker, Lady Gay’s aged husband. Briers was so well-cast as an old man completely under his wife’s thumb that from the second of his first entrance the audience was already laughing (true story!). Finally, there was Paul Ready as Charles Courtly, Lord Courtly’s son. He was strong throughout but really shone in several wonderfully awkward love scenes between him and Grace Harkaway (played by Michelle Terry, whom we watched in All Well’s That Ends Well).
The rest of the cast was less memorable, although I think part of the problem lied with their characters. For example, the meddling lawyer, Mark Meddle (played by Tony Jayawardena), fell flat, probably because it is an overdrawn stereotype of Victorian attitudes towards solicitors. We have heard a million lawyer jokes and they are just not funny anymore. Likewise, we found the scoundrel Richard Dazzle (played by Matt Cross) less than dazzling. By the end of the play, one was left annoyed every time the character appeared.
The set was cleverly put together, switching between the façade and breakfast room of a London house and the exterior and interior of a country estate. The outside of the country estate was particularly convincing, complete with tree tops and misty background. There was also live music in the play, and musicians filled the scene changes and provided the soundtrack to a country dance. During this scene, the audience began clapping in rhythm as the characters danced to the tune. At the end of the curtain call, the musicians reprised an earlier tune, and the audience automatically switched from applause to rhythmic beat-keeping. This instance of community was one of the most enjoyable theatre moments I have had.
Below are quotes from Dion Boucicault’s play London Assurance (1841).
- A valet is as difficult a post to fill properly as that of prime minister. (p. 8 )
- [Max:] I’m a plain man and always speak my mind. What’s in a face or figure? Does a Grecian nose entail a good temper? Does a waspish waist indicate a good heart? Or do oily, perfumed locks necessarily thatch a well-furnished brain? [Sir Harcourt:] It’s an undeniable fact; plain people always praise the beauties of the mind. (p. 14)
- No; she lived fourteen months with me and then eloped with an intimate friend. Etiquette compelled me to challenge the seducer. So I received satisfaction — and a bullet in my shoulder at the same time. However, I had the consolation of knowing that he was the handsomest man of the age. She did not insult me by running away with a damned ill-looking scoundrel. (p. 14)
- So, a man must therefore lose his wife and his money with a smile — in fact, everything he possesses but his temper. (p. 15)
- Oh, a most intimate friend, a friend of years, distantly related to the family, one of my ancestors married one of his. (Aside.) Adam and Eve. (p. 18)
- The bottle, that lends a lustre to the soul. When the world puts on its nightcap and extinguishes the sun, then comes the bottle. Oh, mighty wine! Don’t ask me to apostrophise. Wine and love are the only two indescribable things in nature; but I prefer the wine, because its consequences are not entailed, and are more easily got rid of. (p. 20)
- Love is a pleasant scapegoat for a little epidemic madness. (p. 27)
- [Grace:] Pert, remember, this as a maximum; a woman is always in love with one of two things. [Pert:] What are they, miss? [Grace:] A man, or herself — and I know which is the most profitable. (p. 27)
- [Pert, speaking to Meddle, a solicitor:] Vulgar! You talk of vulgarity to me; you, whose sole employment is to sneak about like a pig snouting out the dust-hole of society and feeding upon the bad ends of vice; you, who live upon the world’s iniquity; you miserable specimen of a bad six and eightpence. (p. 29)
- It strikes me, sir, that you are a stray bee from the hive of fashion. If so, reserve your honey for its proper cell. (p. 33)
- [Courtly:] How can you manage to kill time? [Grace:] I can’t. Men talk of killing time, while time quietly kills them. (p. 34)
- Love! Why, the very word is a breathing satire upon man’s reason, a mania, indigenous to humanity, nature’s jester, who plays off tricks upon the world and trips up common sense. When I’m in love I’ll write an almanac for very lack of wit, prognosticate the sighing season, when to beware of tears: ‘about this time, expect matrimony to be prevalent!’ Ha! ha! Why should I lay out my life in love’s bonds upon the bare security of a man’s word? (p. 35)
- Sir, you are very good. The honour is undeserved, but I am only in the habit of receiving compliments from the fair sex. Men’s admiration is so damnably insipid. (p. 40)
- I love to watch the first tear that glistens in the opening eye of morning, the silent song the flowers breathe, the thrilly choir of the woodland minstrels, to which the modest brook trickles applause; these, swelling out the sweetest chord of sweet creation’s matins, seem to pour some soft and merry tale into the daylight’s ear, as if the waking world had dreamed a happy thing and now smiled o’er the telling of it. (pp. 52-53)
- I have a husband somewhere, though I can’t find him just now. (p. 55)
- You shall be king, and I’ll be your prime minister. That is, I will rule and you shall have the honour of taking the consequences. (p. 56)
- Have your own way. It is the only thing we women ought to be allowed. (p. 56)
- Ah, my dear, philosophers say that man is the creature of an hour — it is the dinner hour, I suppose. (p. 68)
- [Lady Gay:] Am I not married? [Sir Harcourt:] What a horrible state of existence! (p. 79)
- Dictate the oath. May I grow wrinkled, may two inches be added to the circumstances of my waist, may I lose the fall in my back, may I be old and ugly the instant I forego one tithe of adoration! (p. 82)
- Veni, vidi, vici! Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon, Alexander never completed so fair a conquest in so short a time. She dropped fascinated. This is an unprecedented example of the irresistible force of personal appearance combined with polish address. (p. 83)
- No, hesitation destroys the romance of a faux pas and reduces it to the level of a mere mercantile calculation. (p. 88)
- [W]oman is at best but weak, and weeds become me. (p. 96)
- Nature made me a gentleman, that is, I live on the best that can be procured for credit. I never spend my own money when I can oblige a friend. (p. 109)
- The title of gentleman is the only one out of any monarch’s gift, yet within the reach of every peasant. It should be engrossed by Truth, stamped with Honour, sealed with Good feeling, signed Man and enrolled in every true young English heart. (p. 109)