Theatre: Wealthy, witty and wise
Monday 07 June 1999
ROYAL NATIONAL THEATRE
WAS the Serious Money of the 1840s. Where Caryl Churchill's play satirises the ruthless Thatcherite greed unleashed by the frenzy of the deregulated stock market, Edward Bulwer-Lytton's hit comedy examines the momentous effects of wealth, and the lack of same, in the early Victorian era of heartless disregard for any values save those of profit and of property. "To squander money upon those who starve is only to afford encouragement to starvation!" is a mad principle that finds ready acclaim among the parodied political pundits in the piece.
As the new, highly entertaining revival at the National demonstrates, Bulwer-Lytton's play embraces a wide variety of moods - including high- spirited foolery, a Hamlet-like disgust at human kind, and conflicted- over rough romance. Indeed, some of its most enchanting and original effects come at moments that are well- nigh incidental to the main theme. For example, there is a quite blissfully funny sequence executed here by the superb duo of Roger Allam and Patricia Hodge. He plays a pasty- faced, lugubrious widower who, while piously invoking the dear departed at every opportunity, is shyly smitten by Hodge's dryly witty Milady. Their courtship takes the irresistible, indirect form of both gently musing over the deceased wife's tastes and habits - her "pretty trick of stamping her foot" etc - and from Allam's spirited correcting of Hodge's arch impersonations, it becomes clear that he has been mourning an outright monster. Ending in a ludicrous Scottish reel, this scene alone makes attendance worthwhile.
John Caird's assured Olivier production ensures that, throughout such shifts of tone, the morality-play aspect of the drama does not fall from view. The acting-area, in Rob Howell's design, is a giant gold coin emblematically bordered by the ashen-coloured wreckage of homes blighted and destroyed by the profit motive.
To incidental music that often has the smack of a macabre fairground, we are shown a shifting gallery of Victorian venality - from the silken, spurious kindliness of Denis Quilley's Sir John Vesey, who ekes a fair living from a false reputation for wealth, to the lavender-shoed Dandyism of Simon Day "upwoawious" Sir Frederick.
These figures go through their paces under the beady controlling eye of Alfred Evelyn, the poor cousin and intellectual oddity who is suddenly catapulted to extreme wealth by a legacy. It's a role at which Simon Russell Beale excels. The witty intelligence; the resentment at being an outsider; the sense of a nobility and idealism warped through bitterness - all of these characteristics and more are presented in a beautifully shaded performance that pulls you straight into the character's tormented dilemmas.
Evelyn has a psychological block about using his wealth for schemes of social reform because of some naggingly unfinished romantic business with Victoria Hamilton's highly strung Clara.
She rejected his proposal when poor, but her altruistic reasons for doing so are revealed only after a long and tortuous plot in which the motives and identities of benefactors are regularly mistaken and in which Evelyn, like some DIY Timon of Athens, arranges to "lose" his fortune so that he can test the loyalty of his fair-weather friends. The text could, I feel, use some cutting; but, by and large, Money is priceless.
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A version of this review appeared in later editions of Friday's paper
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