Dion Boucicault, in his day a successful and prolific playwright and a great favourite of Queen Victoria's, is hardly a household name anymore, but Nicholas Hytner makes a clever decision in reviving his first big hit at the Olivier. Though dating from much later than the prime of Restoration Comedy, London Assurance shares a lot with that genre, from the plot to the unashamedly over-the-top character names. London socialite Sir Harcourt Courtly goes to the countryside in hopes of marrying the much younger Grace Harkaway, who just so happens to come with a huge dowry. But his son Charles is already there and he and Grace have fallen in love. When Courtly takes a shine to Grace's cousin, Lady Gay Spanker, a plot is hatched to get Gay to distract him so Charles and Grace can continue their courtship.
A lot of the National's favourite actors appear in Hytner's production, led by Simon Russell Beale as Courtly and Fiona Shaw as Lady Gay. In keeping with the rest of the play there's nothing subtle about the performances, and they ham things up to the hilt, but it works perfectly. The foppish, rouged Courtly is the perfect SRB role, while Shaw seems to be having a great time as the guffawing, cigar-smoking, huntin' shootin' and fishin' Gay. They work very well together and in this afternoon's performance dealt as well as possible with what looked like a fairly painful wardrobe malfunction, as Shaw's bracelet got caught in her hair. Beale tried to help dislodge it but couldn't manage it, and fortunately they were just about due to go offstage, which Shaw had to do with her wrist stuck to her head.
The rest of the cast are excellent as well though, and in fact almost everyone has a moment when you think "He's stolen the show... oh wait, she's stolen the show..." Paul Ready and Michelle Terry play off each other well as the young couple, whileplays Gay's doddery old husband Adolphus Spanker with every bit as much comic timing as he ever had. Matt Cross gets some good moments as Richard Dazzle, a London wide-boy who's in the middle of the action despite nobody being quite sure who the hell he is, and in the smallish role of Cool, Sir Harcourt's supernaturally laid-back valet, Nick Sampson opens the show to huge laughs, which keep coming throughout. Along with some funny lines there's a mounting feeling of glorious sillyness, and something as simple as Beale's reaction to Ready removing his glasses is one of the funniest moments in the show. There's also some clever toying with audience expectation: Not just with a few modern touches added to the text by England People Very Nice writer Richard Bean, but also with one running joke I was initially surprised to see retained on the basis that it's racially dodgy; in fact for its eventual punchline Hytner throws in a very clever curveball. This was my present to my Mum for her birthday this year, and luckily it looks like I chose well, she absolutely loved it and particularly Shaw's performance. For sheer amount of big laughs this has to be one of the top shows in London at the moment.
London Assurance by Dion Boucicault is booking until the 2nd of June at the National Theatre's Olivier.