It was in 1865, on the stage line “You sockdolagizing old mantrap!” that John Wilkes Booth took advantage of a guaranteed laugh to shoot dead President Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s theatre, Washington DC.  At moments in the first half of Tom Taylor’s 1858 play (the first revival in London for a century) one did slightly yearn for a pistol-shot. But not too often, and mainly during some of the painful puns, malapropisms and prolonged jokes about sneezing from the silly-ass character Lord Dundreary . Yes, he has Dundreary whiskers: this is the actual character in the actual play which gave those exaggerated sideburns their name. And yes, the overlong jokes were put in by the original actor because his part was too short. Don’t blame playwrights for everything.
Timothy Allsop does his gallant best with this now deeply unpromising comic creation, but is stuck with the sort of jokes which last amused Punch readers well before World War I (Taylor as well as being a West End hit merchant, edited that magazine). And as the dangblastit, hornswoggling, bison-baiting, Grandma’s-slapjacks yee-ha American who horns in on the British toffs and solves their problems, Solomon Mousley is almost enragingly cheeky-charming.
Fine: the Finborough audience likes a bit of living history, and director Lydia Parker clearly made a brave decision not to rescue this hoary lump of Victoriana  by cutting ferociously and playing it double-speed. Rather we learn how it used to be: especially how mutual amusement and suspicion flowed between US and UK in popular culture, before Henry James began laboriously explaining us to one another in the 1880s and, British grandees took to livening up the gene pool by marrying Boston heiresses.

The result finally becomes oddly fascinating in retro charm: a cast of 13 in a stately home deploy a thicket of asides and back-stories, a drunk scene, a couple of songs, a superbly pompous comic butler (Julian Moore-Cook), time-wasting crosstalk and annoying riddles, a missing document, a changed-at-birth story which seems to go away, a problematic will, love at first sight, a scheming mother, a spirited proto-feminist heroine (Kelly Burke) weary of being excluded from the business incompetence of her dim squire Dad. There’s an Irish alcoholic who comes good, and even an adorable milkmaid (Olivia Onyehara).

They all give it admirable wellie, though the one I really fell for is Hannah Britland as the scheming mother’s “delicate” daughter being sold to the tedious old captain: she secretly wants to give up the fashionable invalid role and scoff a plateful of “corned beef and pickles!”. Britland looks uncannily like a young Rebecca Front and has much of that great comedienne’s dry brilliance. Watch this space, she’ll go far. Daniel York is nicely evil as the former charity-boy steward who like a good middle-class schemer has got a mortgage on the estate. And Erika Gundesen, a pale beauty at the piano, plays before, during and after the show original galops and waltzes unearthed from the British Library, with very considerable musical wit.

3 Meece Rating

box office 0844 847 1652 ; Sun-Mon-Tue to 14 April, with matinees.
rating three


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