A quick-witted masterpiece

London Assurance: Dion Boucicault, Arts Theatre, Cambridge, June 1This is a town versus country comedy of manners with the best of them. There are farcical characterisations, satirical portrayals of the rich and pompous, belly laughs, preposterously witty lines and sentimental touches as well.

Ivan Howlett

London Assurance: Dion Boucicault, Arts Theatre, Cambridge, June 1

This is a town versus country comedy of manners with the best of them. There are farcical characterisations, satirical portrayals of the rich and pompous, belly laughs, preposterously witty lines and sentimental touches as well.

It was in 1841 that the 21-year-old Anglo-Irish dramatist, Dion Boucicault, staged his play at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Almost exactly 68 years before, another Anglo Irish writer, the great Oliver Goldsmith, put on She Stoops to Conquer at the same theatre. The plays come from the same stable.

Early Victorian fashionable pretensions are mocked something rotten. There's the rouged Belgravia fop, Sir Harcourt Courtly (a splendidly indulgent Gerard Murphy), who thinks he can cut a sway with a young Gloucestershire heiress. There's a rakish son Charles (Laurence Mitchell) who falls for her too. Charles has a Jack-the Lad, supposed friend, Dazzle (cleverly played by Ken Bradshaw) .In fact Dazzle's an opportunist - there all the time though no one, neither Charles nor even Dazzle himself, knows who he is.

The country gentry are equally potty - huntin', huntin' and more huntin' - that's all they go on about. Especially obsessed with the tally-hoes is the top-hatted Lady Gay Spanker (an outrageously funny performance from Geraldine MacNulty) She is set against her diminutive and subservient husband, “Dolly” (Christopher Ryan). Spanker, in case your imagination is running away with you, is a reference to a horse.

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So, it's a comedy about money, class, the role of women and male vanity. The non-stop plot has a double identity confusion to be sorted out, a son competing with his father for the hand of an impetuous young woman, exasperated servants and outsiders on the make - the one in the country being a lawyer who wants people to kick him so he can claim damages.

It's a play full of bon mots and sub-Wildean witticisms, presented by the Watermill Theatre, the rising company based in a converted riverside mill near Newbury. Nikolai Foster, one of the country's most talented young directors gives us a lively, suitably over-the top production style, handling especially well the almost continuous flurry of audience asides which keep the show fresh throughout.

Boucicault lived an improbably full-blooded life, careering between riches and bankruptcy, success and abject failure with various affairs and marriages along the way. But he had a ready wit and this is his masterpiece

Ivan Howlett

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