Relaxing in the unusually warm auditorium of the Unicorn Theatre, being entertained by a suitably sprightly and spirited comedy performed by the Studio Theatre Club, can only be described as the perfect end to a balmy Summer’s day in Oxfordshire.
The tone of the play is very much set up by the character names: Dazzle, Meddle, Cool, Pert, Lady Gay Spanker and her husband “Dolly” all take their places as part of the frolicsome troop which focusses on the tale of Sir Harcourt Courtly; an insufferably vain, ageing but fashionable fop, and his bid to wed the 18 year old Grace Harkaway to whom he has been betrothed for many years. With unanticipated mischief, Charles Courtly (the son of Sir Harcourt) finds himself trapped in a spiralling white lie, thwarting his own father and seeking an escape route.
Delightfully realistic, from the drawing room of a London townhouse to the expanse of a country garden, the set design is beautiful and engaging without overbearance. The latter reward makes the slightly lengthy scene changes fully worthwhile, and the music used to accompany these rare lulls is always amusingly appropriate. Elements of the staging are proactively woven into the performance, from Sir Harcourt’s model pose (perfectly spotted by Jon Viner’s lighting design), through the pleasantly rhythmic crunch of grass beneath the actors’ feet, and culminating in ingenious methods of hiding behind a garden statue. Elena Wright operates the sound and lighting during the performance, both of which are cleverly engineered to add subtle depth to scenes, but never detract from the dialogue.
I always await the unveiling of STC production costumes with eager anticipation and ‘London Assurance’ does not disappoint. Every accessory and item of clothing lends more to the character in question, bringing consistency to each individual which would otherwise be difficult to achieve in the two-hour run time. Notable examples include Sir Harcourt Courtly’s snazzy shoes, Max Harkaway’s tweed garb and Charles Courtly’s crumpled blue suit and tortoiseshell spectacles which are in direct opposition to his earlier attire.
Matt Kirk as director has guided the team to success, the play relies heavily on words to contrive witticism, and this has been well balanced with action which sufficiently maintains pace and focus. First night nerves were apparent but handled with expertise throughout, and there were some stunning individual performances.
Stephen Briggs as Sir Harcourt Courtly adeptly demonstrates superb comic timing and an ostentatious sense of self-admiration without delving into absurdity. His young intended; Miss Grace Harkaway, is potentially the most realistically drawn character in the play, entertaining the audience with some cracking monologues and one-liners as a sparky antithesis of a flighty romantic. Grace is modern, witty and relatable, surprising herself at her self-deemed “weakness” in falling in love. Sreya Rao is clearly enjoying the role, handling this headstrong naivety, and the subsequent proactive transformation, with unshakable skill.
A powerful emotional range and adaptability is evident in Charlie Vicary’s portrayal of Charles Courtly. Despite the unassuming comedic nature of the play, both haughty devilment and genuine affection are cleanly expressed. Ben Winters’ interactions with Charles as Mr Cool are also animated and astute.
Erin Burns radiates absolute confidence and infectious vivacity as Sir Harcourt’s sometime paramour Lady Gay Spanker, I found myself beaming every time she took to the stage. This is diametrically opposed to John Kirchhoff’s sweetly simple Adolphus “Dolly” Spanker, who heightens his wife’s eccentricity through placid indifference.
Scoundrel Richard Dazzle is delivered with conviction and clarity by Jon Shepherd, who maintains capricious mirth with excellent diction. Ann Domoney relishes the insufferably annoying character of Mary Meddle; living up to her name and successfully serving as an important, if somewhat unique plot device, without falling into the role of a traditional “narrator”.
Grace’s doting uncle, Max Harkaway is played with a genuine tenderness and charm by Mike MacDonald and Lindsay Rolland offers both intrigue and irritation as her maid, Miss Pert. Jess Moorehouse also takes the small role of Ms Martin and asserts her lines with fortitude.
Don’t miss the chance to catch this light, lively production of Dion Boucicault’s most celebrated (but seldom performed) work before it trips away after a final performance on Saturday 20th July.