A Busy Day at the Lyric Theatre
With Fanny Burney's A Busy Day, we return once more to that particularly British obsession - class. Burney, the celebrated 18th-century novelist and chronicler of polite society, uses her play to pass comment on both the nouveau riche vulgarity of the burgeoning middle classes and snobbery of old-money aristos in Regency London.
At the interface of these two social strata is Eliza Watts (Sara Markland), a young heiress from a new money family, who has lately returned from Calcutta, and desires to marry the dashing and well-connected Mr Cleveland (Simon Robson).
Initially, at least, her plans are thwarted. Cleveland's guardian, Sir Marmaduke Tylney (John McCallum) has his own ambitious plans for the young man, namely marriage to the rich but crass Miss Percival (Sara Crowe). Second, Cleveland's brother Frank (Ian Kelly), a self-absorbed gold-digging dandy who has heard about Eliza's fortune, decides to win her for himself. What follows is a comedy of misunderstandings that sees the two heiresses and two Mr Clevelands being paired off with the wrong partners.
There are a number of amusing performances in this five-act play, with Stephanie Beacham's disgustingly snobby Lady Wilhelmina Tylney, and Ms Crowe's Miss Percival standing out and getting most of the laughs.
Director Jonathan Church seems to have cast his ensemble with a nod to Hogarth:Ben Moor's Lord John Dervis is a tall gangly, caricatured toff ; Frank Cleveland, a camp fop; and Mr and Mrs Watts (Richard Kane and Carol Macready) physically mismatched and overdressed. Ruari Murchison's splendid costumes help complete the picture.
What seems most surprising about this entertaining, visually appealing play, is that it's taken over 200 years for it to receive a London premiere. As the programme notes inform us, it was 'commissioned by Sheridan, delayed by Napoleon, lost in America and found in Bristol', where it was staged by the Bristol Old Vic.
A Busy Day can be a lot of fun, but I certain scenes are a little drawn out, and the denouement a long time coming. It is, however, well-written satire that pokes fun at all parties and sides with none. Burney's stance on class is that it matters not a jot where we come from, but what we are. Or as Mr Cleveland informs his upper crust chums when finally united with Eliza, we have to 'look not at the roots but at the flower'.