As Phil arrived at the National Theatre for the preview of London Assurance on Monday night Andrew appeared to be intoning a new mantra. “Boo-see-co, boo-see-co, boo-see-co,” he muttered smugly, trying each permutation on for size to see which would sound most impressive.
It transpired that Andrew had for once been swatting up: delving into the programme notes to gen up on Irish actor, playwright, adaptor, stage director, manager, producer and innovator Dion Boucicault and – in particularly – learning how that intimidating looking surname should be pronounced. Suddenly Phil was at it too, pursing his lips contorting his facial muscles and rolling it round his tongue. All that was missing was a mouth full of marbles. Anyone passing would have rightly supposed the Whingers had lost theirs.
If they got nothing else out of the evening at least these wannabe Liza Doolittles might, at last, be able to impress someone at a party (if Sonia Friedman ever invites them to aonther) with their ability to pronounce Boucicault.
They need not have worried about reclaiming something from the evening. It gives us great pleasure to announce that the National Theatre has climbed out of the very deep pit it dug for itself with all the Really Old, Like Forty Fives, the Nations and (dare we bring it up again) the Frams and is back on form, doing what it does best. And how.
Sir Nicholas Hytner’s production of Boo-see-co’s London Assurance is as assured as the title suggests: a rare pleasure, superbly cast, sumptuously designed (Mark Thompson) and hilarious with big, big performances guaranteed to hit the back of the cavernous Olivier auditorium.
Like Andrew, who thinks he’s more fashionable than he really is, and like Phil, who believes himself to appear younger than he really is, Sir Harcourt Courtly (Simon Russell Beale) leaves his modish London ways behind on the promise of a young heiress bride in the country. His heart is instead captivated by the married Lady Gay Spanker (Fiona Shaw). Incidentally, if you’re over eighteen try Googling “Gay Spanker”. Boo-see-co’s name is way down the list.
Throw Charles (Paul Ready), Sir Harcourt’s son into the mix who also turns up in the country (in a disguise as believable as Clark Kent’s) and falls in love with his father’s intended, Grace (Michelle Terry), and the stage is set for glorious silliness which is played up to and beyond the hilt.
Russell Beale is a treat: all silly walk and exaggerated Ronnie Barker rolling eyes; Bella Emberg reincarnated as the Prince Regent. He gloriously milks and steals every scene despite serious competition from Shaw’s braying Spanker, his imperious valet Cool (Nick Sampson) and Ready’s excellent Charles.
And then there is Richard Briers, now almost as venerable as his second cousin Terry Thomas. His role as Lady Gay Spanker’s husband “Dolly” may be small but just to be able to see the man shuffling around in his nightgown is a treat.
The Whingers had a whale of a time, gales of laughter bursting forth from them at every turn. Even the 2010 trend for addressing the audience directly seemed quite acceptable in this 1841 conext. And what a curiously proto-feminist text in which all the men are weak and/or buffoons/and or gay and all the women strong and – for the most part – in control of the action with little if any time for slushy romance. “When I’m in love,” says Lady Gay, “Spit on my face and call me a horse.”
Add to all this a false nose, on-stage goose plucking, the funniest eloping disguises ever and the second reference to Solomon Isaacs in a matter of days (it’s the codeword used by Amanda and Elyot to quell their bickering in Private Lives) and you have something that pushes an awful lot of the Whingers’ buttons.
Other characters – Dazzle, Cool and Pert – sound as though they could be the new Phantom’s henchpersons. On which subject – what a tonic the critics have in store for them on its opening night just one day after Paint Never Dries.