London Assurance, NT Olivier, London
Love Never Dies, Adelphi, London
King Lear, Courtyard, Stratford

An early Victorian comedy is a star-studded treat, but Lloyd Webber's plot rejigging enflames some 'phans'

Simon Russell Beale is a ludicrous bauble of vanity in London Assurance. This is the little-known comedy by Irish-born playwright Dion Boucicault, penned in 1841 and now revived with joyous brio by Nicholas Hytner.

A superannuated City dandy with his sights set on a rich young bride, Beale's Sir Harcourt Courtly looks like Lord Byron crossed with Mr Toad. A triple-chinned epicurean – vast paunch bobbing above absurdly balletic turned-out toes – he would have delighted the caricaturist Gillray.

As he totters off to Squire Harkaway's rural manor to woo Michelle Terry's aghast Grace, what Courtly doesn't realise is that his own son Charles (from his first marriage) is a rival already in situ. The latter is gallivanting under an assumed name, together with a rascally impostor called Dazzle – forerunners of the wags in Oscar Wilde.

Courtly is equally unprepared for the gusto of his fellow house guest, Lady Gay Spanker. Fiona Shaw is horsiness incarnate as the bounding aristo, and as she thwacks her skirts and hoots with merriment, he is smitten.

Hytner's production points up that it's the gentlemen who are the fools and sissies, most hilariously when Harcourt believes Spanker is ready to elope with him in disguise, and Beale rams a stove-pipe hat plus long beard over Shaw in her hooped frock, so she looks like a cross-dressed Abraham Lincoln, smirking as Beale scuttles around in a bonnet.

Some elements are less inspired. Matt Cross's brash Dazzle is, in fact, rather dull. But Nick Sampson is superbly droll as the unflappable valet Cool, and Richard Briers adorable as Spanker's gaga husband.

Punters unfamiliar with the play might feel cheated if they knew how many of the funniest lines aren't bona fide Boucicault. Who's complaining, though, when the cast's ad libs and other revisions (credited to Richard Bean) bring the house down?

London Assurance is a resounding hit, but can the same be said for Andrew Lloyd Webber's new mega-musical Love Never Dies? On the night I attended, there was an ill-boding announcement on the public address system. The Phantom, we were warned, had a sore throat.

So was our man in the mask going to wheeze his last before this fanfared sequel to The Phantom of the Opera even had a chance to run and run? Hell, no. You'd hardly have guessed Ramin Karimloo was poorly as he launched into the Phantom's lovelorn aria "'Til I hear you sing", with lashings of vibrato and a surging crescendo.

I guess coping with a virus is a mere bagatelle when you're a gothic horror who never gives up. Half Karimloo's head, when he removes his mask, is hideously worm-eaten, but he's none the less contrived to become a funfair tycoon in the years since he quit his Paris Opera lair. Having lost his beloved Christine to the good guy, Raoul, the Phantom has become Coney Island's Wizard of Oz-cum-Dr Frankenstein. He presides over a spooky, spectacular citadel of whirling ferris wheels and macabre automatons. And he's hatched a plan to lure back Christine.

Some self-styled "phans", fixated on the original show, are outraged that Lloyd Webber has rejigged the love triangle. Personally, I don't give a monkey's. Why not take a new slant, with romantic hero Raoul morphing into tetchy husband (top-class actor Joseph Millson, who also has a fine singing voice).

While Raoul hits the bottle, Sierra Boggess's Christine – yearning for a second brush with the dark side – is drawn into eerily echoing duets with Karimloo. Undeniably, Lloyd Webber can write a haunting melody, and everyone's going to come away from this show with earworms – tunes that just won't go away. But Boggess's climactic solo "Love Never Dies" seems to have been lifted from Sir Andrew's own back catalogue, and the syrup quotient is drip-fed Creme Eggs.

Finally, the monarch's decline, from riches to rags, is subtly charted in David Farr's excellent new RSC King Lear, with Greg Hicks as a hawk-faced potentate, with straggly hair and an incipient stoop.

The period setting is not specific: a medieval/Edwardian/ modern-day militarised state where the chandeliers flicker in Lear's jerry-built fortress. That ingeniously foreshadows the storm scene, when the King's world collapses and he goes mad in hallucinatory flashes of lightning.

The sub-plot's opposed brothers, Edgar and Edmund, are weak links. But Kelly Hunter and Katy Stephens are complex as Goneril and Regan, terrified of their cursing father as they turn cruel. Kathryn Hunter's Fool is like a wizened little boy, a nervous simpleton who can't stop speaking the harsh truth, and Hicks himself, even while withering into a demented tramp, regresses into poignant, childlike pretending games.

In an unforgettable cliff-top scene, in a haze of sunlight, his Lear stands crowned with wild flowers. As if playing at Red Indians, he fires a stalk of corn from his imaginary bow, then suddenly whips it round to pierce his own breast. Fantastical, comical and heartbreaking.

'London Assurance' (020-7452 3000) to 2 Jun; 'Love Never Dies' (0844 412 4651) to 23 Oct; 'King Lear' (0844 800 1110) to 26 Aug

Next Week:

Kate Bassett reports back on The Gods Weep, a portrait of corporate greed by Dennis Kelly

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence