By Marilyn Lester
For those who yearn for a Dickensian Christmas, who appreciate the enduring classics of English language theater, or simply want a good time, London Assurance is just the ticket. Thanks to casting perfection and astute, nuanced direction by Charlotte Moore, this beautifully appointed Irish Rep production has a lot to offer. It’a jolly stocking stuffer of holiday silliness and remains an entertaining treat for modern audiences.
Irish playwright Dion Boucicault had a huge hit with this 1841 comedy, writing about a collection of madcap characters (whose names cleverly reveal their personal attributes) within a twisting all’s-well-that-ends-well plot. Getting to know them is half the fun, so the intimate space of the Irish Rep mainstage has proximity in its favor as the action rolls out. Playing farce is a tricky business; to work effectively it can’t be overplayed or underplayed—particularly with characters breaking the fourth wall, crouching behind set pieces, punning and exercising other bits of madness. This delightful ensemble cast, led by the masterly Colin McPhillamy as the foppish elder, Sir Harcourt Courtly, gets the style just right. Each excels at delineating the eccentricities of respective characters with a fairly unmannered, naturalistic portrayal.
The plot centers on an inheritance; Max Harkaway, a country squire (Brian Keane), has arranged the marriage of his 18-year-old niece, Grace Harkaway (Caroline Strang) to Sir Harcourt. Grace’s inheritance is tied to the Harkaway-Courtly estates, which are cryptically and oddly conjoined. Of course, what should be a straightforward transaction is not. The situation is complicated by the appearance of Young Charles Courtly (Ian Holcomb),Sir Harcourt’s comely son, and his somewhat mysterious friend Dazzle (Craig Wesley Divino). The course of true love takes another chaotic turn when the forward Lady Gay Spanker (Rachel Pickup) arrives with her older, placid husband, Adolphus “Dolly” Spanker (Robert Zukerman). The labyrinthine plot is aided and abetted by the Courtly valet, Cool (Elliot Joseph), Grace’s maid, Pert (Meg Hennessy) and slippery lawyer Mark Meddle (Evan Zes).
Moore has wisely chosen a version of London Assurance that’s eliminated some extraneous players and has achieved a clearer focus on the screwball activities that play out in six scenes. Boucicault’s work (London Assurance was only his second play) bridges the comedic styles of his predecessor in Irish-authored farce, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and his successor, the ever-popular Oscar Wilde. London Assurance is indeed a comedy of manners, but one that’s less arch than its predecessors. And salted in among the various plot twists and turns are pithy thoughts and views on love, marriage and the nature of men and women—much that would appear “modern.” Especially amusing is Boucicault’s depiction of Meddle, the lawyer, as delivered by Dazzle: “What has an attorney to do with affairs of honour? – they are out of his element!” It would appear that some things never change, and we can rely on basic human nature to remain fairly constant. Its these universal truths that help make a play produced 178 years ago remain worthy of being seen again and again.
The sumptuous costumes of London Assurance were designed by Sara Jean Tosetti. They’re set off to great advantage on James Noone’s elegant, revolving set depicting the various rooms in which the action takes place. Other excellent creative input came from lighting designer Michael Gottlieb, sound designers M. Florian Staab and Ryan Rumery (who also wrote original music) and hair/wig designs by Robert Charles Vallan.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
London Assurance runs through January 26, 2020, with a running time of 2 hours 20 mins including a 15 minute intermission.
For schedules and tickets, and more information, visit www.irishrep.org