Not exactly what you’d call a regular theatregoer, I have nevertheless been to two plays in the last week or so. Firstly, Alan Bennett’s Enjoy at Bath’s Theatre Royal, which is touring around the country following its triumphant West End run. It was a surprise flop on its premiere in 1980, and it’s not one of Bennett’s greatest plays – too busy, I think, in terms of the points it makes, not quite sure enough of its intentions, and as a result unsatisfying in some respects – some of the same problems that bedevil his recent hit The Habit of Art, though the two plays have little else in common. It’s still riotously funny in places. Alison Steadman is a revelation, and the scene where Carol Macready appears to fellate the unconscious and possibly deceased David Troughton unsurprisingly brought the house down. Ah, that sort of play, you are thinking. Yes, it is cheeky in some respects, though as so often with this writer pathos is never far around the corner. The heart of the play for me lies in Richard Glaves’s transvestite son, infiltrating his parents’ house after many years of estrangement in the persona of a council-sanctioned snooper. For any faults it may possess, it’s an undeniably intriguing work and one likely to repay time spent in its company. I think a perusal of the script may be a good idea.
On Saturday I paid a visit to the National Theatre for Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance, in a tremendous new production directed by Nicholas Hytner. I really haven’t enough superlatives to lavish upon it, so forgive me if I go overboard in my customary manner. Simon Russell Beale as Sir Harcourt Courtly is nominally the star. His performance is a thing of utmost wonder. One reviewer has described it as a cross between Lord Byron and Mr Toad; another suggests he is channelling Bella Emberg. As I beheld his first entrance I thought of Al Lewis and the stupid actors from Blackadder. From the moment he takes the stage, bewigged, perfumed, imperious and resplendent in an extravagant dressing gown, his every movement commands the attention. In the scene where he woos Fiona Shaw’s Lady Gay Spanker, rutting in one sense if not yet another, he appears a ball of animal sexual fury. It fair takes the breath away. The play’s poster shows him in modern dress, but this production photo by Catherine Ashmore gives a more accurate impression of his appearance.
Until now the most celebrated modern production of the play in England was one in the early 1970s featuring the divine Elizabeth Spriggs as Lady Gay – a performance I would love to have seen – and Donald Sinden as Sir Harcourt, who I imagine must have relished getting his teeth into this part, venerable old ham that he is, though even his performance cannot possibly have been as camp as Beale’s. Sinden came to mind as I watched the play. I remember reading an article written many years ago by Stephen Fry which touched on Sinden’s performance in Never the Twain, criticising among other things his grotesque gurning and mugging, perhaps in order to demonstrate the point, often borne out, that it is easier for comic actors (or comedians) to turn their hand to straight acting than it is for straight actors to take comic roles. Sinden’s a strange example to use, being an actor who has always acted light comic parts, but it does point up the fact that a good or even a great actor does not necessarily a good sitcom actor make. Situation comedies must be very difficult to get right. Beale’s performance in this play is delightfully broad, and I’ve never been so entertained in the theatre, but what is right for a live audience of 1,000 may fall flat on the small screen. I suppose it comes down to different styles of comedy and of acting.
I’ve dwelled so much on the various marvellousnesses of Simon Russell Beale that it may give a skewed impression of the other actors not being up to the job. That’s not the case at all. Fiona Shaw is superb as the hippophilic Lady Gay. She gives the impression not so much that she loves horses as that she is a horse. The image of her spread across the sofa stamping her hoof will stay with me. The two young leads, Paul Ready and Michelle Terry, are both enormously likeable, which is the main thing in roles of that kind. Mark Addy as Max Harkaway displays a range and a composure hitherto unknown to me. I can confidently state that the part of Cool, the supercilious Courtly valet, has never been embodied better than by Nick Sampson in this production. It is only perhaps the irritating characters of wideboy Dazzle and lawyer Meddle that disappoint.
This is before one even gets to Richard Briers as the cuckolded Dolly Spanker. He is an absolute joy to behold, gently juddering whenever sexual matters are obliquely alluded to, roving in his nightgown, shooting at the light fittings with a blunderbuss and so on. This is why one really ought to see the production twice. I was occasionally conscious, at points where other characters were talking, of Briers, seated at the side of the stage, doing things that were making other members of the audience double up. The problem is that one’s eyes can’t focus on two things at once, unless one is Marty Feldman.
Boucicault’s play doesn’t have the reputation of greatness that the best works of, say, Oscar Wilde do. That this production is such a success is partly down to the fact that it’s not echt Boucicault. Richard Bean has made textual amendments, i.e. put in more jokes, which are cheering. Courtly’s line “She lived fourteen months with me, and then eloped with an intimate friend” becomes “She lived fourteen months with me, and then eloped with my best friend – and I miss him.” Not an original joke, but the audience collapsed with laughter. The new lines are integrated quite seamlessly, with the exception of an anachronistic reference to debt consolidation that didn’t get quite the laugh it wanted. The thorny issue of the minor character of a usurer called Solomon Isaacs is resolved inspiredly through the casting of a Japanese actor in the part. It doesn’t make the scene he is involved in particularly funny, but it does defuse any tension that might have arisen otherwise.
As I walked over Hungerford Bridge on my way home, I was momentarily stopped in my tracks by a man attempting unsuccessfully to take a photo of a family group against the backdrop of the Thames at night. These camera malfunctions prompted his wife to call across the bridge: “It’s like when you push my button, love – it don’t happen!”