Money at the National - Olivier

In 1840, when Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote his skilful comedy about the morality of money, there existed an almost Stygian divide between the wealthy and the impecunious in London. To be moneyed in the Victorian era was to enjoy an elevated status and a cosseted existence. To be poor, a predicament Alfred Evelyn bemoans in Money, was to be damned to eternal penury, with little prospect of social mobility.

At the start of the play, Simon Russell Beale's Evelyn has been rejected by the pretty but impoverished Clara (Victoria Hamilton). Although she loves him, she believes that spurning him is the only practical measure to save them both from a life of hardship. But Evelyn cannot see this, and later, when he freakishly inherits the fortune of a distant relative he decides he cannot marry Clara, since she never truly loved him as a pauper.

John Caird's elegant production ably demonstrates that though money makes the world go round, its ownership brings its share of problems. Evelyn, scorned when poor, is suddenly and comically besieged by fawning sycophants. These include his employer 'Stingy Jack' Vesey (Denis Quilley) who considers him a fine match for daughter Georgina; and foppish Fredrick Blount (Simon Day) and superficial Lord Glossmore (Oliver Cotton) who treat him as a soft touch.

As a result, Evelyn eventually resorts to a spot of duplicity - he pretends to lose his new-found wealth to a gambler and some fly-by-night bankers in order to winnow his real friends from the fair-weather variety, and ascertain whether Clara is really after his heart or his purse.

Bulwer-Lytton's characterisations are of the larger-than-life-Dickensian kind. Here, the NT's beautifully-costumed ensemble cast offer up some excellent performances. Russell Beale is particularly strong as the frustrated Evelyn while Roger Allam brings chuckles to his role of the mournful Henry Graves and the fragrant Patricia Hodge is oil-on-troubled-water as Clara's employer, Lady Franklin.

A splendid foil to the plot complexities is provided by Rob Howell's minimalist set - a number of gilded Victorian chairs, and two enormous double doors - which form a simple but potent image of wealth and power, without resorting to overkill.

Money manages to dissect London's plutocracy with wit and humour. But while there is much to condemn in a society which runs on wealth, it is obvious that neither Bulwer-Lytton nor Evelyn are really socialists at heart. Money is an evil, says the writer of this play, but a necessary one at that.

Richard Forrest