London Assurance

Dion Boucicault
Watermill Theatre production
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring
(2008)

Publicity phoro

Written when he was twenty one, this was Boucicault’s first great success, and the play was premiered at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in 1841. Noted for his melodramas, this is melodrama with a vengeance, thoroughly enjoyed by the theatre-goers of the period, much as the old silent films were in their time, although we laugh affectionately at them now.

It is hard to find affection for this piece, try as we might, and however hard the actors work to convince us of its humour. Certainly there are laughs to be had, but the play just misses the mark, falling between parody and sincerity

Emphasising – or over emphasising - the rival merits of town and country living, the London scene is portrayed by Sir Harcourt Courtly (Gerard Murphy) at his ultra-fashionable address of Belgrave Square and with his ultra-fashionable attire (brought “don't y' know” from his recent forays to continental Europe). He is overdressed, over-rouged, over-preens himself, and is enough to put anyone off fashion for life.

His counterpart in the country is Lady Gay Spanker – now there's a name to conjure with, and to send the politically correct establishment rushing to complain. She is equally overdressed, but in the huntin', shootin', fishin’ style of a hearty independent country woman, an unbelievable contrast to her diminutive mild and vague husband Adolphus, whom she calls 'Dolly'. Act two livens up the proceedings, with the womenfolk resentfully, if dutifully, waiting for the men to finish their after dinner drinking session and Christopher Ryan’s Dolly, in his cups, finally asserting himself, to his wife’s astonishment – and delight! Geraldine McNulty is a splendid Lady Gay, bringing to mind Penelope Keith’s autocratic and overbearing theatrical manner.

Sir Harcourt believes his son is the model of propriety, and he manages to keep up the illusion by valet, Cool, constantly covering for him, in a nicely judged performance by Alan McMahon, with straight-faced and bare-faced lies. The opening scene where a drunken Charles is half-carried in is very well portrayed, although this is the most life he is allowed in the piece. His helper is one Dazzle (Ken Bradshaw) who, with the aid of an instantly acquired upper-class accent, being seen in the right places, and with a few tall stories, manages to acquire board and lodging for the next few months, as well as some ready cash. He could give present day con-artists a run for their money.

Sir Harcourt – sixty three but admitting to forty – is to marry the eighteen year old niece of his friend, country squire Max Harkaway – a bluff and avuncular Mike Burnside. Clare Corbett as niece Grace nicely overplays her eulogy about life in the country, but never quite gets over the message of her capricious flirtatious/dismissive behaviour when manipulating Charles to propose.

It might be possible that this tale is based on the affairs of the influential Count Alfred d’Orsay, who agreed to marry his rich patron’s fifteen years old daughter, and if so it must have been a satirical delight to their contempories but, although a modern audience can laugh at the absurdities, they have really lost their sting.

Touring to Worthing and Canterbury.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor