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Brighton Year-Round 2023

Low Down

Dazzle might be the name of the hero’s ligging new bestie. But it’s what Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance (1841) directed by Tony Bannister with Jacqui Freeman at LLT is about. Their production though blazes midsummer laughter through dog-days. Leave the night to Shakespeare, this is high noon with a hangover.

Worth several Dreams for miles around. Applause and laughter throughout this production – the liveliest I can remember for years – prove it. Do see it.

Directed by Tony Bannister with Jacqui Freeman, Set Designer Michael Folkard, Lead Set Designer Keith Gilbert, Specialist Construction Don Plimmer, Light and Sound Design Christopher Pugh. Costumes Kate Palmer and the LLT Wardrobe Team.

Stage Manager Keith Collyer ASMs Joanne Cull and Frances Wood.

Till July 15th


Dazzle might be the name of the hero’s ligging new bestie. But it’s what Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance (1841) directed by Tony Bannister with Jacqui Freeman at LLT is about. And it’s what this production does, roughly following Richard Bean’s slight 2010 tweaking for the magnificent 2010 NT production; director Nicholas Hytner and cast contributed too

This glorious comedy’s enjoying increasing revivals: indeed another ‘Little’ production opened at Brighton only two weeks ago. Tess Gill’s production though blazed midsummer laughter. LLT’s basks in July and there’s depth and shadows, time to breathe. Either way, leave the night to Shakespeare, this is high noon with a hangover.

Appearances, paradoxes – “Plain people always praise the beauties of the mind” – flight from town to country. It’s enough to make you think fellow-Irishman Wilde knew its formula would help him break out from his city comedies. The Importance of being Earnest Wilde ligs off Boucicault as Boucicault did from Sheridan right back to Etheridge’s The Man of Mode.

Because Etheridge’s Sir Fopling Flutter’s reborn in the insufferably bewigged dandy 63-year-old Sir Harcourt Courtly (Robert Hamilton) who for monetary reasons has an option on marrying his friend’s niece Grace Harkaway (Melodie Gibson). His preen is pure assurance. And Hamilton’s assured of Lewes: he guys himself wickedly.

Grace’s uncle, wholesome red-beef Squire Max Harkaway (David Rankin) might be complacent. Young Grace seems resigned. But. Rewind.

It’s 9am in London, the first of Michael Folkard’s sets rightly earning applause in itself: a deep sepia panorama of sketches, here of the country circling a grand estate – first of Folkard’s and Don Plimmer’s graphic depictions. It raps round furniture with London swagger including two doors (honouring the pioneering box set of 1841). The central panel – initially all portraits and London interior – slots out to be replaced with two others alternating: an interior looking out, and an exterior prospect of Oak Court itself.

Christopher Pugh’s lighting and sound design suffuses interiors, brightens day, plunges dusk (twice unexpectedly), supplies a gallimaufry of chirps syncopated with gunshots. There’s delightful period music too – Mendelssohn’s early Piano Concerto. Shout-out too for costumes by Kate Palmer and the LLT Wardrobe Team: sumptuary laws might be revived!

Enter assurance, as servant Cool (Shaun Hughes, a suave mix of hauteur and little panic) bewails his young dissolute master Mr Charles Courtly (Tom Messmer) isn’t back from roistering. Messmer handsomely does his best with a part often out-played by nearly everyone else, and makes his Charles winningly warm, affecting, all comic hunch and silly pathos, and daffy inspiration.

As ‘himself’ – wait for that – he pitches his voice prig-wards, to imitate some celibate prelate. A nice differentiation, which this Charles might have carried on in front of his father, Charles‘ father, Hamilton’s Harcourt is under an illusion his son’s a studious Oxford innocent. Cue spectacles and book when required.

So when Charles fetches up drunk with hanger-on Richard Dazzle (Vito Taskin) it could be disaster. London assurance itself, Dazzle is a superb creation realised by Taskin, here confirming his own brilliance, one to watch closely. Blending apparent languor with lightning opportunism and scheming, Dazzle is pure Restoration second-man but benign schemer too and Taskin’s delivery is both lounging and alert, on point with eyes expressive as a snake who can’t quite bring itself to pounce.

Taskin deploys not the mockney-dandy drawl Dazzle normally affects (think Alfred Jingle of the 1836 Pickwick Papers, a near-relative) but louche Cockney. It certainly fits with his run-ins with Bow Street Court. Taskin’s also winningly physical, something directors Bannister and Freeman make use of to the last moment.

Originally the part of the 20-year-old Boucicault’s early collaborator and elder John Brougham who was bought out after the first draft Out of Town, Dazzle had been Ignatius, and Dazzle was the original Courtly.

That tells you a lot about the Courtlys; and that there’s an Irish accent to schemers from Farquhar, Congreve, Goldsmith, Sheridan, O’Keefe – every fine British dramatist for 200 years was Irish. And everyone’s up for dazzle in the city. What will they do in a country without mirrors?

Especially as Charles is pursued for debt by Solomon Isaacs – Aidan McConville’s role, which is cut at the start so he only makes a late appearance with a few dignified words. His quietly distinguished costume though suggests Isaac’s changed for his grand gambit of apprehension.

Disaster’s averted as Rankin’s nicely bluff northerner, is taken in by Dazzle. And in pure Algernon mode Dazzle gets himself invited to Squire Harkaway’s country seat – Dazzle always “distantly related” to anyone he needs to live off. Charles must come too, but as Augustus Hamilton.

The plot’s so proto-Wildean that when by blissful bad luck Harcourt fetches up as well, Charles convinces his father he’s not Charles but the resemblance, sir…

So when Charles meets Grace he must woo her as Augustus. Grace isn’t taken in, when they meet in the second and third sets: outside a green thought in a greystone shade of seat.

Pert, Grace’s Maid (India Tindley) here shimmers in a small part, delivery beautifully timed as she stares out the “liar” lawyer, as she advises Grace.

Gibson – appearing in a splendour of dresses from minty sage to violet-inflected blue etches Grace with arch looks and a studiedly pointed battery of asides and glances. The part’s both innocently knowing and  a shock of sexual self-discovery. And a real shock when she meet Courtly Sr.

There’s artificiality and emotion – it wasn’t quite the part for serious Michelle Terry in 2010 and Gibson convinces us in cut-glass without cutting herself on Grace’s words or pruning sympathy. There’s a warmth here I’ve not seen in two other productions, and a delicious timing in calibrating the temperature of each aside.

Hamilton catches that oblivious Harcourt catches none of that. Particularly as the slightly overloud first scene settles into beautifully-paced comedy. Hamilton, bewigged with an almost Beatles-thick wig blazes with hypocrisy, his assurance he can win a handsome woman and dump/marry a beautiful 18-year-old.

Hamilton builds Harcourt – rightly – to be guyed. He plays not only the gallery but the stalls. But he also deepens shreds of dignity near the end, and that’s no mean feat, an overtwist of writing, where Harcourt has to be redeemed.

Gibson and Messmer revel in Goldsmithian fake identity: here the heroine sees through her lover’s disguise, always ahead of him; even when he returns as Charles and declares her lover Augustus dead. Except – Boucicault differs from Wilde – Gibson’s Grace shows fright which she knows Charles will mistake for grief at Augustus but take as true feeling for him. Grace too can dazzle.

Gibson plays this like most Graces – more Restoration than Stoops-to-Conquer sentiment. But Gibson allows more of the latter’s warmth. The scenes between the lovers are the most affecting I’ve seen: humour tousled with passion.

Still, this isn’t Restoration, even Sheridan. Enter Boucicault’s great creation, straining at the stirrups – and she’s off! Lady Gay Spanker (Chloe Franks) is that great hunting view-halloo original and Franks makes her more sedate, less manic, more sensual. Instead of the traditional tour-de-force of whoops and apprehension, she’s both self-delighting and sensually knowing: the embodiment of The County Strikes Back.

Franks canters her account of leaving every rider – including Rankin’s Harkaway, as he cheerfully admits. Franks’ sovereign cry of victory is normally the comedy’s set-piece, and I miss it. Franks though does many other things (especially with Hamilton), which I’ve not seen Gay Spanker attempt, and it’s wholly convincing.

Immediately onside with the lovers Gay Spanker snatches the reins of Harcourt’s lust, plays him to distraction, both senses, so the lovers might elope. But – there’s a husband. One who led the sack of Copenhagen in 1807 with 2000 dead (a dodgy detail cut here), but which left him with so much PTSD he wants nothing better than to be “protected”, as Gay wants “freedom”. A perfect marriage, beautifully subverting 19th century norms.

There’s two parts taken which I’ve not seen equalled elsewhere. Dolly Spanker (Tony Potter) is a touching dodderer, stung into false indignation at his wife by Harcourt, then a duel. In a beautifully detailed performance, Potter gradates this with a heart-warming shuffle and borrowed “ruff”, no bark. Boucicault even turns tables on Lady Gay: an offstage discharge of weapons brings true fright. Find out how that works out.

There’s scheming by Mark Meddle (Simon Hellyer), a lawyer who wants to have his rear kicked to sue for damages, igniting mischief for pecuniary advantage; but justified in the neat denouement (drawing up marriage contracts, cut here). Hellyer’s famed physical acting makes Meddle memorable: bending at daft angles, stretching limbs and notebook to actionable witness, with oleaginous rubbing of hands. Hellyer’s so oily you could kick him, find a sticky residue of damages dogging your footsteps.

James, Harkaway’s Servant (Gerrard Lavictoire) is the mute human voice put-upon with stacks of cases, a naggingly visual cameo etched with pathos.

A superb LLT production, and Harcourt’s speech at the end can’t stand as it is. Bannister and Freeman know what to do. If you saw that 2010 production, or even the BLT, you’ll know one response. As it is, be surprised. LLT does it differently. There’s a dimension of warmth too, that makes this production treasurable.

That final flourish sets the seal on a production that sets up midsummer through dog-days, worth several Dreams for miles around. Applause and laughter throughout this production – the liveliest I can remember for years – prove it. Do see it.