photo by Catherine Ashmore
The National Theatre's production of London Assurance just passsed through Colorado Springs. There werre a dozen good reasons not to miss it, and those reasons are the members of the cast. The play itself is forgettable but delightful, hack work of the highest order. Boucicault was a genius of the theatre, and even before his 21st year he know the one thing all good playwrights need to know---how to set his table for good actors. London Assurance gives its cast of London actors a chance to shine, and they do, they do, radiating invention, style, ensemble play and verve--- they are everything their lamentable football team was not. And one of the great things about NT Live is that the excellent video productions on the big screen are representations of theatrical rather than film performances. Boucicault's play is an extended invitation to theatrical extravagance, and all of that is happily preserved on the big screen. It's the sort of show every student of period theatre acting should see and rejoice in, from the first moment to the last. Simon Russell Beale continues his fabulous theatrical pyschobiography as the vain but fragile Sir Harcourt, so self-involved that he fails to recognize his own son, with all manner of hormones spilling over the stage even at his advanced age: he has to cover his groin with a pillow to hide his excitement while courting (though he's had a whiff of Portguese smelling salts to prime himself first). Yet he chooses a lady's bonnet for a disguise and he looks quite comfortable in it too, like the young Margaret Rutherford. He has the plumpness of a soft meringue, he sails on Persian carpets, he preens and he yearns, he overflows with radiant abundant eagerness, the purest kind of narcissism,and and at the end has a surprising moment --a brief alarm of actual self discovery. Fortunately this does not last. He is paired with and against the great Fiona Shaw as Lady Gay Spanker, a woman who is described as "glee" personified. And so she is, bounding all over the drawing room, hurling herself onto the sofa, sprawling and twitching all over, her bare shoulders rolling with mirth and curling delectably in the way you never thought shoulders could but certainly should (Fiona Shaw has the best shoulders in show business: Maggie Smith has the elbows; Fiona Shaw has shoulders-- I give them a standing ovation). Richard Briers is the platonic form of doddery, Simon Markey has immaculate preternatural cool as Cool, the valet, and Michelle Terry is just terrific as the country ingenue, not too pretty, a sweet not too sweet chinless rosebud, awkward, reactive, gingery, glowering, pure, with a donkey's innocence and a donkey's cunning. In fact just about everything in this show is just as it you like it, it's so assured and so benign. Now if England would only fire that grumpy Italian art collector and hire Nick Hytner as its soccer manager, setting Simon to prance around midfield and Fiona to take the headers, England might be in Sunday's final. They would distract every opponent. As it is, England's best team was onstage at the Olivier Theatre--and as for Sunday's football, all praise to the Dutch and Viva Espana!