The play was definitively rediscovered by the RSC in the early 1970s with Donald Sinden as Sir Harcourt Courtly (played as a tragically ageing Beau Brummel) and Elizabeth Spriggs as Lady Gay Spanker, and somewhat drably revived at Chichester and in the West End in 1989 by Sam Mendes.
Russell Beale falls on Sir Harcourt with typical aplomb. He’s a barrel in a waistcoat with a quiff and a passion for an 18-year old country heiress, Grace Harkaway (Michelle Terry), who in turn is struck by his own booby son Charles (Paul Ready) disguised as somebody else.
After his levee and his breakfast in Belgrave Square, Sir Harcourt removes to the Gloucestershire home of his marital prey and encounters the galloping huntswoman, Lady Gay, whose doddery husband, beatifically played by Richard Briers, unwittingly endorses their frivolous flirtation.
Shaw’s Spanker is a gloriously non PC spokesperson for the delight of the hunt and the necessity of foxes; Russell Beale’s Sir Harcourt was in the saddle once and was summarily dispatched and rubbed off against a tree.
This light-hearted clash between town and country manners gained Boucicault the reputation of being the Irish Shakespeare; he was also the first playwright to tell actors where exactly to stand on a stage.
This theatrical instinct is apparent in the production but not in the outward show of Mark Thompson’s cosily predictable Gloucestershire fastness, which resembles one of those ghastly Victorian Gothic yellow stone piles on the outskirts of Oxford, or in the eager but ordinary performances of Matt Cross as the inaptly named Dazzle or Tony Jayawardena as a resoundingly unfunny lawyer, one who hoves into view “like a stain seeking a sheet.”
Even worse is a toy rat that speeds across the stage on loan from Hamley’s and a Chinese official called Solomon Isaacs – source of the “pax” cry “Sollocks” in Private Lives – who doesn’t seem real or even amusingly artificial. Showing up best are Nick Sampson as a snooty valet, Maggie Service as a goose-plucking servant and genial Mark Addy as Sir Harcourt’s prospective uncle-in-law.
The production neither plays the piece to its old-fashioned hilt – and the text is drivel – nor casts it in a new light. There is at least some consolation in Russell Beale’s nose-pinching aversion to cows and country dancing, or in his ludicrous transformation to Little Bo Peep as he plans an escape with Lady Spanker to the Hotel Anglais in Boulogne. But it’s not really enough.