The Theatreguide.London Review
Olivier Theatre Spring 2010
My sole complaint about this comedy at the National Theatre is that it slows down from time to time to let you catch your breath, while I would have happily succumbed to relentlessly uninterrupted laughter.
Nineteenth-century Irish-English-American (he had careers in all three countries) playwright Dion Boucicault dipped into the conventions of the seventeenth-century comedy of manners and the eighteenth-century comedy of town-v.-country to produce this bauble, to which director Nicholas Hytner adds the fun of watching a pair of twenty-first century classical actors letting their hair down and having a ball being silly.
Boucicault's plot opens with an ageing London fop preparing to marry a much younger country heiress. But his son, in disguise for reasons that make sense at the time, gets to the girl first, and the young couple enlist the aid of a jolly anything-for-a-laugh countrywoman to confuse and foil the old man's amorous intentions.
Director Hytner has astutely spotted that the playwright admitted and embraced the story's artificiality, and he has encouraged his cast to run with the comic absurdity of their characters, playing as broadly as they dare. And it is that high-spirited, we-know-this-is-silly-but-isn't-it-fun energy that carries the evening.
Just sit back, for example, and revel in Simon Russell Beale's self-adoring dirty old man as the far-from-slender fop tries to pose sylphlike or dance gracefully.
The actor does wonderful things with his eyes alone, registering the character's delight in his imagined glory, his brief flashes of panic when even he can't miss his absurdity, his mad randyness when he thinks one woman or another is falling under his spell, or his total bewilderment at the frequent occasions that he hasn't the slightest idea what's going on.
Fiona Shaw's jolly horsewoman, up for anything and delighting in everything, is slightly less wonderful only because the actress seems to be holding something in check, not letting the character loose, and we can only hope that she will relax and have more fun with the role as the run progresses. (Note: Those who saw it later in the run report that she did, and was as delightfully over-the-top as Russell Beale.)
Michelle Terry, in the essentially straight role of the heiress, takes every opportunity to react visibly in disbelief, anger or delight at the absurdities around her, while Paul Ready makes the most of the young swain's difficulty in keeping up with his own plotting.
Like Fiona Shaw, some of the secondary cast could let themselves go a little more, to help fill in the occasional breathing spaces between laughs. Matt Cross hasn't quite found the quality implicit in the name of the social sponger and professional houseguest Dazzle, while Tony Jayawarneda's ambulance-chasing lawyer wants to be more of a cartoon than he is now.
It isn't all a matter of needing to overact, but rather of capturing the comic essence of each character. Richard Briers effortlessly steals every scene he's in as Shaw's befuddled husband with as quiet a performance as you could imagine, while Nick Sampson steals every scene he's in by turning a servant who's almost identityless in the text into the hilarious essence of seen-it-all unflappability.
I can promise you loads of laughs, and I suspect that as the run progresses there will be even more, so that you won't be able to make the I-want-even-more complaint I began with.
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