The Irish actor-playwright Dion Boucicault, who has been described as a Victorian Andrew Lloyd Webber, "devoting his life to creating spectacular long-runners aimed at playing across the world", achieved early success with his comedy London Assurance in 1841. He was just 20.
Little could Boucicault have known, in depicting the aged Sir Harcourt Courtly's attempts to take a young bride, that life would later imitate art when, at 64, Boucicault himself married a girl of 21. Hopefully, Boucicault did not make as much of an ass of himself as his creation did.
Sadly self-deluded, the rich old fop Sir Harcourt is all set to marry the heiress and innocent young niece of his chum Squire Harkaway. Rouged up to the nines, sporting a jet-black wig, heavily pencilled eyebrows, and creaking in several joints, Sir Harcourt looks every bit his 63 years, while insisting to all and sundry that he's really going on 40. Dandified in every lavish outfit, the part is a great vehicle for Gerald Harper, who starts out laconically, but hots up when the robust Lady Gay Spanker rides on to the scene.
Splendid by name and splendidly acted by Race Davies, Lady Gay quickly realises that the only way to save her cousin from Sir Harcourt's clutches, and allow her to marry her real love, Sir Harcourt's son, is to distract the old rascal. She pretends to be smitten by him herself so that into this farcical maze of love, money, manners and misunderstanding come a few twists in the form of a thwarted elopement and a duel.
Lady Gay's manner is brisk, her bons mots sharp: "Man is a creature of the hour - the dinner hour, I suppose"; of her meek husband, she declares: "I married him for my freedom, and he married me for my protection." Fifty years before Wilde, the dialogue certainly has some of the later writer's sparkle.
For a Christmas production at the Royal Exchange, Jacob Murray has made a good choice, showing an unabashed confidence in the play in his assured direction of his larger-than-life characters. The plot is flimsy, with some glaring inconsistencies, and the wit can be laboured but the action becomes so ridiculous that you'd have to be a total grump not to laugh.
Charles Aitken makes a genial Charles Courtly, both as himself and in disguise, aided and abetted by the mysterious wastrel Dazzle (Andrew Langtree). Jonathan Keeble, a memorable Wemmick in Murray's Great Expectations, returns to give another colourful character portrayal, as the money-grabbing lawyer Meddle. Rae Hendrie, too, is a persuasive Grace Harkaway, even if her frantic use of modern signing when we first meet her is a bit of a mystery. And spindly Murray Melvin, with all his assumed London assurance, keeps his cool as the long-suffering servant.
Louise Ann Wilson's stylish designs, meanwhile, neatly depict the play's town-and-country feel, whisking us seamlessly from the decorum of a Belgravian anteroom to Harkaway's Elizabethan mansion in Gloucestershire, while the elaborate costumes are perfectly tailored, down to the smallest accessories.
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