Brighton Year-Round 2023
Dazzle might be the name of the hero’s ligging new bestie. But it’s what Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance (1841) directed by Tess Gill at BLT is about. And it’s what this production does. Gill’s production though blazes midsummer laughter. Leave the night to Shakespeare, this is high noon with a hangover. Worth several Dreams for miles around. A must-see.
Directed by Tess Gill, Assistant Director Ciaran O’Connor
Stage Manager/Props Claire Prater, DSM Dawn Draper
Set Design Construction and Painting Steven Adams, Set Construction and Painting Tom Williams, The Cast & Crew. Set Décor Tom Williams, Patti Griffiths
Lighting & Sound Design, Beverley Grover, Lighting/Sound Operation Glenys Harries-Rees
Wigs and Hair Patti Griffiths, Myles Locke
Additional Properties Jacqueline du Bled; Costumes Bradley Coffey, Myles Locke, Photography Miles Davies
With special thanks to Ann Atkins and Henfield Players, Harveys of Hove, and Basil the Rat.
Till July 1st
Dazzle might be the name of the hero’s ligging new bestie. But it’s what Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance (1841) directed by Tess Gill at BLT is about. And it’s what this production does, 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’s about to open at Lewes. Gill’s production though blazes midsummer laughter. 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 57-year-old Sir Harcourt Courtly (Leigh Ward) who for monetary reasons has an option on marrying his friend’s niece Grace Harkaway (Jojo Hills). His preen is pure assurance.
Grace’s uncle, wholesome red-beef Squire Max Harkaway (Steven Adams) might be complacent. Young Grace seems resigned. But. Rewind.
It’s 9am in London, the first of Steven Adams’s sets: a deep sepia panorama of sketches, here of the cityline (first of Tom Williams’ graphic depictions) raps round furniture with London swagger. Beverley Grover’s lighting and sound design suffuses interiors, brightens day, plunges dusk, supplies a gallimaufry of chirps syncopated with gunshots. There’s delightful period music too – Paganini’s flute and guitar duos.
Enter assurance, as servant Cool (Myles Locke, a suave mix of hauteur and panic) bewails his young dissolute master Mr Charles Courtly (Daniel Carr) isn’t back from roistering. Carr handsomely does his best with a part out-played by nearly everyone else, and makes his Charles winningly warm, affecting, all comic hunch and silly pathos, and daffy inspiration. Charles‘ father, Ward’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 (Christin Matus) it could be disaster. London assurance itself, Dazzle is a superb creation realised by Matus, new to BLT. Blending apparent languor with lightning opportunism and scheming, Dazzle is pure Restoration second-man but benign schemer too and Matus’ delivery is both lounging and alert, on point with eyes expressive as a snake who can’t quite bring itself to pounce.
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 Isaacs – Bradley Coffey’s first and last role, working-man’s garb beautifully timeless and out of place, accent cutting its way without invitation. Coffey’s also the superb costumier in this production.
Disaster’s averted as Adams’ nicely bluff northerner (all wigs adroitly puffed by Patti Griffiths and – appropriately – Locke when not being Cool), 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 white shade of seats, interior a brighter beige with nicely skew paintings, chaise-longe, chairs and… a rat and blunderbuss. Ah. The rat.
Pert, Grace’s Maid (Holly Everett) here dazzles in a small part, delivery beautifully timed as she walks across the stage, lighting it up, a sparkle of a performance as she advises Grace.
Hills – appearing in a splendour of dresses from minty sage to lavender (Coffey again) 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. There’s artificiality and emotion – it wasn’t quite the part for serious Michelle Terry in 2010 and Hills convinces us in cut-glass without cutting herself on Grace’s words or pruning sympathy.
Ward catches that oblivious Harcourt catches none of that. Particularly as the slightly overloud first scene settles into beautifully-paced comedy. Ward blazes with hypocrisy, his assurance he can win a handsome woman and dump/marry a beautiful 18-year-old. Ward builds Harcourt – rightly – to be guyed.
Hills and Carr 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 – Hill’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. Hill plays this more Restoration than Stoops-to-Conquer sentiment.
Still, this isn’t Restoration, even Sheridan. Enter Boucicault’s great creation, straining at the stirrups – and she’s off! Lady Gay Spanker (Jodie Kenison) is that great hunting view-halloo original and Kenison makes the most of her. Wildly energised from start to finish, a tour de force of whoops and apprehension, she’s both self-delighting and embodiment of The County Strikes Back.
Her great set piece is cannily blocked by Gill. As Kenison begins her account of leaving every rider (including Adams’ Harkaway, as he cheerfully admits) the cast assemble alongside her like horses, dropping back as they fall. Kenison’s sovereign cries of victory is the comedy’s set-piece. There’s a slight strand of Phoebe Waller-Bridge in this Gay, but that’s just to hint Kenison’s whoop sheathes winking irony.
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 detail we’re rightly warned jars today), 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.
Dolly Spanker (Rosalind Caldwell) is a touching dodderer, stung into false indignation at his wife by Harcourt, then a duel. Caldwell gradates this with a heart-warming shuffle and borrowed 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 (Ezra Fiddimore), a lawyer who wants to have his rear kicked to sue for damages, igniting mischief for pecuniary advantage; but made use of in the neat denouement. In a daft lawyer’s cushion-wig Fiddimore’s new to BLT, with oleaginous rubbing of hands. Fiddimore’s persuasion bears an original touch of Tartuffe out of James Corden. He’s so oily you could kick him, find a sticky residue of damages dogging your footsteps.
If a blunderbuss goes off (with spectacular effect) James, Harkaway’s Servant (Mimi Goddard) is its human voice. A foghorn delivery burling on and off, Goddard inhabits absurdity. By James’ side Martin – and (Coffey, who morphs back to Isaacs at the end) – is a fidgety sidekick.
A superb production, and Harcourt’s speech at the end can’t stand as it is. Gill knows what to do. If you saw that 2010 production you’ll know how. As it is, be surprised. Gill’s final flourish sets the seal on a production that sets up midsummer, worth several Dreams for miles around. A must-see.