Dion Boucicault has been described as ‘the Irish Shakespeare’ and ‘a Victorian Andrew Lloyd Webber’! This first play by the prolific and popular writer was hugely successful at Covent Garden in 1841.
Watching Nikolai Foster’s charming and lively revival, it’s easy to see why. Boucicault’s story may be preposterous, but that’s part of the fun and his characters are full-blooded, whether they’re scheming liggers, grasping lawyers, sagacious butlers, ageing dandies or feisty women of any age.
All of these and more collide here, first in Sir Harcourt Courtly’s ultra-fashionable Grosvenor Square townhouse, although the action soon moves to the laid-back gentility of Max Harkaway’s Gloucestershire estate.
Sir Harcourt is in denial where his son Charles is concerned, assuming he’s in bed at nine, when he’s actually out all night at the gaming tables. The sixty-something dandy is also in denial about his son’s age – and his own. So much so that he’s contemplating a match with a teenage country heiress. Soon everyone’s off to the country, Sir Harcourt to meet his intended and his son secretly following, under an assumed name, to evade his creditors, at the suggestion of Dazzle, a hanger-on he’s unaccountably acquired on a night out.
Are folk more straightforward in the country? Well, the greedy lawyer Meddle is as devious as they come. And young Grace soon proves she’s nobody’s fool, even though she falls madly in love with Charles. And then there’s the wonderfully ill-assorted couple, the gloriously named hearty larger-than-life force that is Lady Gay Spanker and her diminutive aptly-named husband ‘Dolly’ (Adolphus), both set upon pulling the wool over each other’s eyes to prove they have the upper hand in their relationship. So the scene is set for cross and double cross – all in the name of love – although a lot of revelations and a little good will lead to a satisfactory conclusion…
There are fine performances all round in this well-cast production. Clare Corbett’s Grace is a delicious breath of country air and Geraldine McNulty a Junoesque bouncing delight as Lady Gay, wonderfully matched by Christopher Ryan’s devoted but feisty little terrier of a Dolly, almost literally snapping at her heels. Gerard Murphy relishes the role of the ageing would-be fashion icon, Sir Harcourt, and Laurence Mitchell is by turns dashing and devious as Charles. There’s great support from Ken Bradshaw as the opportunistic Dazzle, Alan McMahon as urbane valet Cool, Mike Burnside as genial Harkaway and Nigel Hastings as creepy Meddle.
It’s all played out on Philip Witcomb’s versatile drawing room set, working well whether the vista beyond the French windows is town square or country park.