Magazine article The Spectator

Triumphant Pursuit

Magazine article The Spectator

Triumphant Pursuit

Article excerpt

London Assurance

Olivier, in rep until 2 June

Bedroom Farce

Duke of York's, booking to 10 July

Trickster nature has been maliciously kind to Simon Russell Beale. It made him the leading actor of his generation and instilled in him a desire to perform Shakespeare's awesome roll-call of warrior princes. It also built him like a chest of drawers. His physique has always hampered his Shakespearean outings, so it's a great relief, and a pleasure, to see him on the stage of the National in a role that complements every last bauble in his dazzling thesaurus of effects.

London Assurance, a slapstick comedy, was written in 1841 by a 20-year-old playwright, Dion Boucicault. It became an instant classic and has been revived many times since but no production can have benefited from such a sublime lead performance. Though Boucicault's plot is a jumble of cliches, his gorgeous language is steeped in the traditions of Goldsmith and Congreve, and his comedy is handled with an amazing freedom and inventiveness. Russell Beale plays Sir Harcourt Courtly, a London beau, who wants to double his income by marrying an heiress half his age. Inevitably, the girl falls in love with her suitor's drunken son.

Sir Harcourt fancies himself as a leader of fashion. His silk top hats are two-feet high.

He takes breakfast in a purple cape and he favours tinted wigs with the tufts thrust forward like Caesar. When he arrives in the country he's dressed in a tailcoat of bright orange. Though stout, he's miraculously fleet of foot, and he accompanies his conversation with a repertoire of mimes and poses that emphasise and justify his vanity.

He likes to skip on to a phantom rostrum, one arm raised and one lowered, in graceful asymmetry, as if a sculptor were on hand to render him deathless in stone. This is no fanciful caricature but a genuine portrait of a Byronic dandy, the embodiment of an Epicurean philosophy that devoted itself to the elegant pursuit of pleasure.

Russell Beale covers every inch of this complex terrain with perfect ease and even though the character is a preposterous fop he makes Sir Harcourt's lofty panache and poetic singularity completely adorable. Having met his betrothed, Sir Harcourt is deceived into falling for Lady Gay Spanker, a shrieking, chortling, harrumphing countess besotted with country sports. Fiona Shaw doesn't so much play this role as hurtle towards it like a stunt rider aiming smack into a lorryload of straw. …

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