Midway through watching the Merton Floats’ accomplished production of Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance this evening, it occurred to me how surprising it is that the piece is not better known. The play is wittily scripted, its plot satisfyingly intricate and its characters hilarious, yet I had never come across it until a friend mentioned it to me earlier this term. This is all the more surprising when one considers the popularity of the plays of Oscar Wilde and the books of P G Wodehouse, both of which, to a greater and lesser respect respectively, can be viewed as the play’s literary descendants.
The play is immediately familiar territory to anyone who has seen Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, as the play tracks and trivialises the romantic exploits of a small group of eccentric Victorian aristocrats over the course of a short stay at a country house. The plot becomes increasingly complex as characters fall in love left, right and centre, and go on to deceive each another as to their true feelings and identities. The play culminates in the aftermath of a duel and ends predictably and satisfyingly with the two principle younger characters, Charles Courtly and Grace Harkaway, agreeing to be married.
The production was a little slow to get going. Vyvyan Almond as Sir Harcourt Courtly impressed from the start with his studied floaty and mincing mannerisms, but was, along with the other actors, initially a little mechanical in his delivery. Things improved rapidly, however, and by the end Almond was thoroughly convincing as the flamboyant but aging dandy. Perhaps the best and most consistent performance came from Benedict Morrison as Mr Richard Dazzle, a friend of Charles’ and in large part the orchestrator of the events of the play. Morrison’s channelling of Frankie Howerd camp was a delight to watch, his variety of tone being matched wonderfully by his always animated facial expressions.
The rest of the cast were also uniformly very good. Joshua Wilce was excellent as Charles, impressing with his ability to turn quickly from the jocular irreverence of Charles’ alter-ego, Augustus, to the gormless weirdness of Charles as he misleadingly presents himself to his father, Sir Harcourt. Sophie Eager as Grace Harkaway and Matt Small as Squire Max Harkaway were solid as the play’s sweet but mischievous heroine and her avuncular if slow-witted uncle. Both were occasionally a little quiet, although this was probably because their characters were among the least flamboyant. Carrie Grierson as the lawyer Mark Meddle was satisfyingly both officious and unhinged and Emily Troup was brilliantly bumbling and reminiscent of the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz as Lady Gay Spanker’s hapless, henpecked and incongruously female husband.
Alice Caulfield as Lady Gay herself was as boisterous and obnoxious as could be hoped from her name, her laugh calling to mind P G Wodehouse’s description of someone’s laugh as like ‘a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge.’ Last but not least, James Mannion as the butler, Cool, and Linnet Kaymer as the maid, Jenny, acquitted themselves well, Mannion stealing the scene on several occasions with his acerbic, deadpan delivery.
Much credit must also go to the play’s directors, Tim Coleman and Finola Austin, and to its producers and assorted technical staff. The play was very well chosen for its setting, the Merton gardens with their steps and hedges providing a very convincing country house. The costumes were excellent, a highlight being a particularly pungent purple overcoat worn by Sir Harcourt. The production was full of nice little touches which combined to create a very professional atmosphere. Two of my favourite such touches were the use of oddly specific signs (‘afternoon c. 5.42pm’) to indicate the setting or circumstances of some of the scenes, adding to the general feeling of surrealism, as well as using the act of bringing furniture on and off stage to develop the romance of the two servants.
To conclude, the play was largely a delight. Admittedly, it was a little slow to get going, but I suspect this was due to first night nerves. All in all, I don’t see why, with marginal improvements, the play should not be well on the way to five stars in future performances.