Sir Harcourt Courtley – Robert Dilks
Max Harkaway – Paul Ackroyd
James – James Riley
Pert – Nikki Packham
Grace Harkaway – Holly Hewitt
Meddle – Richard Stewart
Lady Gay Spanker – Hilary Cordery
Dolly Spanker – Dennis Packham
Cool – Patrick Neylan
Martin / Soloman Isaacs – Thomas Dignum
Charles Courtley – James Dammers
Dazzle – Stevie Hughes
D ion Boucicault may have been no literary genius, but London Assurance, his bucolic romp among Victorian mores, wickedly satirising the lifestyles of town and country dwellers alike, was a palpable hit with London audiences in 1841. More than a century on, the scintillating wordplay of Richard Bean’s revised version for the National Theatre met with equal acclaim and this cautionary tale of deception and flirtation was an inspired and ambitious choice for BLT’s midsummer production. Boucicault’s elaborately contrived plot focuses upon the time-honoured contrasts between age and youth and between city sophistication and rustic guile. Sir Harcourt Courtly, an aging widowed dandy, is lured away from fashionable Belgravia to the Gloucestershire country house of his old friend Squire Max Harkaway, by the prospect of marriage to Grace, Max’s beautiful eighteen-year-old niece and heiress. Sir Harcourt’s errant son Charles, in flight from his creditors, arrives accompanied by city chancer Dazzle and pursued by the opportunistic self-serving lawyer Meddle. He immediately falls in love with Grace, while Sir Harcourt’s romantic attentions are diverted to the foxhunting obsessed Lady Gay Spanker. Suffice it to say that a predictable imbroglio of flirtations and deceptions ensues, ultimately resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
Designer Tony Jenner once again surpassed himself with a remarkable revolving set, smoothly alternating between the sophistication of Sir Harcourt’s Belgrave Square residence and the idyllic environs of Ma x Harkaway’s Gloucestershire mansion. Elegantly stylised rather than realistically detailed, its muted pastel shades and sensibly minimal period furnishings subtly created a convincing impression of opulence, its centrally-positioned French windows, common to both locations, providing the perfect frame for colourful characters’ grand entrances. Period-perfect costumes – some acquired from the National’s recent production – and unobtrusive Victorian music, chosen with care to match the developing moods and events, combined to underpin the action with an authentic-feeling period ambience.
Jane Buckland directed with assurance (what else?), moving what was originally a ‘comedy of manners’ rather more in the direction of farce – and none the worse for that – keeping a full house laughing from start to finish. Maintaining a relentless pace, she combined stylishness with the illusion of spontaneity, her cast for example often engaging the audience, not just in ‘asides’, but making us complicit in their stratagems and ruses. She also melded the impressive array of talents on display into a finely-balanced ensemble performance, a feast of irresistible comic acting with first-rate performances across the board.
Patrick Neylan’s supercilious valet Cool more than lived up to his name, so laid-back as to be almost horizontal, more fastidiously snooty than his ‘betters’, subtly revealing his insidious venality. James Dammers gave a good account of Sir Harcourt’s debauched and philandering son Charles, amusingly drunk, easily persuaded into duping his father by assuming the thinnest of disguises, then finding reserves of charm as a smitten swain. As Grace Harkaway, the object of Charles’s affections, Holly Hewitt beautifully portrayed the young lady’s intelligence and air of gentility, maintained even in moments of desperation, with an undercurrent of native cunning. The courtship between these two was particularly sensitively played in the midst of all the frantic manoeuvring surrounding it. Paul Ackroyd’s bluff Max Harkaway was the epitome of a country squire, hearty and hospitable to the point of foolishness, harbouring Stevie Hughes’ opportunistic freeloader Dazzle, “distantly related”
to everyone and the architect of most of the plot’s machinations, and Richard Stewart’s oleaginous, self-serving lawyer Meddle, forever sniffing out litigious opportunities “like a stain seeking a sheet”. In the role of the aged and mentally-challenged Adolphus ‘Dolly’ Spanker, husband of the voracious Lady Gay, Dermis Packham created an intriguing and fully-f1eshed character and just when it might be assumed there were no more delights in store, up popped Thomas Dignum with a hilarious cameo of a Chinese creditor named Solomon Isaacs! Decorous domestic support came from Nikki Packham’s lady’s maid and James Riley’s servant.
The crowning glory of this production, however, was the combination of two sublime comic creations. Hilary Cordery excelled as Lady Gay Spanker, an obsessive huntswoman who regarded foxes as “one of the most blessed dispensations of a divine providence”. – Bursting exuberantly onto the stage, hooting with mirth after a gallop which she then re-lived in graphic detail, with hugely expressive mime and mad, side-splitting verve, she proceeded to command the stage and everyone on it with her hysterical pronouncements on marriage, men and life. If her head- tossing, gesturing and facial contortions occasionally became overly melodramatic, she could be forgiven for the sheer joy of her vibrant enthusiasm. She was at her best as she alternately led the besotted Sir Harcourt astray and roguishly fended him off.
As Sir Harcourt, Robert Dilks was in the tremendous form of which long-standing BLT members know him to be capable. Laughter greeted his first entrance, with its outrageous, over-the-top but finely judged posturing and posing, and continued unabated throughout. Transported to the country, completely out of what today we would refer to as his comfort zone, he continued to pose with one exquisitely crooked leg and frequent recourse to the kerchief at his wrist. He completely captured the character’s preening vanity and massive self- satisfaction, but became unexpectedly touching in the last act as he realised the error of his ways. His wooing of Lady Gay was one of the high points of both their performances, as Sir Harcourt felt compelled to conceal the evidence of his ardour behind a strategically-placed cushion. Together they represented quite simply a misalliance made in Heaven. Having long harboured doubts about the scrupulousness of totally uncritical reviews, I now find myself forced uncomfortably but irresistibly into offering the very same handiwork. In his review of the National Theatre’s
production, Charles Spencer wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “This is an absolute corker of a production, one that will be talked about and chuckled over with reminiscent affection for years to come”. In the somewhat smaller orbit of BLT, I can only assert that exactly the same may be said of this truly memorable production .•
– Arthur Rochester