“Am I too florid?” asks Sir Harcourt Courtly (Simon Russell Beale) near the beginning of the National Theatre’s exuberant revival of Dion Boucicault’s 1841 comedy London Assurance. The flamboyant Sir Harcourt is referring to his complexion but “florid” is a word that fits Russell Beale’s performance here perfectly. Posing and preening and skipping about the stage, the actor’s work in London Assurance is the very apex of camp. The production’s central joke is that this roly-poly, bulging-eyed Sir Harcourt considers himself a dashing, highly desirable fellow, "the index of fashion," if you please. He expects the 18-year-old girl, Grace (Michelle Terry), who’s been promised to him, to fall head over heels at his charms. (In fact, she screams in horror at the sight of him.)
Russell Beale is a proven master at playing pretension and vanity for laughs (and sometimes for tears) and he’s in his element here. There is, as often, an edge of mania to his comedy, but then he beguiles you with some surprising, truthful nuance. He’s employed some of the tricks he’s using here before (in particular, the outrageous pronunciation of French words cropped up in the 2008 NT production of Pinter’s A Slight Ache), but they’re none the less effective for that. And when Sir Harcourt meets and falls in love with Grace’s raucous cousin Lady Gay Spanker (Fiona Shaw) the production shoots into the comedy stratosphere. Appropriately enough, it’s Shaw who gives the production its shot of testosterone; with her snorting laugh, love of the hunt, and endless horsey metaphors, her Lady Gay is a force. Shaw and Russell Beale are, as expected, a winning team. There’s a memorable seduction scene in which Sir Harcourt falls painfully to his knees to declare his passion and then avails himself of a cushion to hide his rising excitement. As Russell Beale plays it, Sir Harcourt’s tumescence comes as as much of a surprise to the character as it does to the audience.
Boucicault’s plot - it involves disguises and deceptions and marriage plots and possible elopements - is a nonsense and the play a trifle. But, pitched somewhere between Restoration Comedy and Whitehall farce, Nick Hytner’s production has great charm, despite a script which has been unnecessarily revisioned by England People Very Nice scribe Richard Bean and includes some flagrant anachronisms. The production isn’t quite the total joy that the Hytner/SRB Alchemist of 2006 was, but it’s well-designed and nicely inhabited by the whole cast, with Richard Briers doddering delightfully as Mr. Spanker and Nick Sampson standing out as Sir Harcourt’s wry valet. The actors all seem to be having a grand time. You will too.