Olivier Theatre, London SE1
Opened 10 March, 2010

Put Simon Russell Beale on the Olivier stage, and its problems of configuration and communication vanish. He makes the space his own, and shares this facility with his partners onstage. In 2007, he and Zoë Wanamaker gave a masterly and touching portrayal of an unusually middle-aged Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Now, once again under the direction of Nicholas Hytner, Beale and Fiona Shaw – the most compelling stage actor and actress of their generation if not of our time – team up for Dion Boucicault’s early comedy. Written in 1841, its natural territory is a lifetime earlier, with the likes of Sheridan and Goldsmith. It is a city/country comedy in which an elderly, vain London aristo pursues an arranged marriage with the niece of a country-squire friend, only to find that the bride-to-be is also pursued by a familiar-looking fellow (his son, in disguise of a sort) and that he himself falls for an ebullient horsewoman. The characters’ names tell us all we need to know: Beale is Sir Harcourt Courtly, and Shaw takes on the most implausible name in the entire dramatic canon to 21st-century ears, as Lady Gay Spanker.
Hytner smirks at the genre’s conventions right from the opening speech in which Sir Harcourt’s valet Cool (you see?) remarks, “I am in a fever of dread” with all the febrility of a dozing Siamese cat. But when the action proper begins on Mark Thompson’s only slightly miniaturised country-house set, cast and audience are alike at play but taking the game seriously to get the most fun out of it, with the vigour and determination that Lady Gay puts into a good steeplechase. A clever touch defuses the script’s anti-Semitism regarding the moneylender Solomon Isaacs: taking his cue from a remark about Isaacs coming from “the East”, Hytner has cast Filipino-born Junix Inocian in the role. Add Mark Addy in the role of the bluff squire, Michelle Terry as his niece who outsmarts her old and young suitors alike, Paul Ready as young Courtly finding for complicated reasons that he is his own rival in love, and in particular Richard Briers in an affable cameo as Lady Gay’s less-than-dynamic husband, and all in all the word “romp” would not go amiss. Oh, and did I mention the animatronic rat?

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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