This warhorse of a farce is dragged out of mothballs whenever there is a strong-enough comic actor to inhabit the lead role of Sir Harcourt Courtly, a pompous fop staving off late middle age by obsessively adhering to the latest fashion in dress and manner. Simon Russell Beale is that performer, and he fits the role like the proverbial glove. Recalling Jackie Gleason's Reginald van Gleason character, the rotund Beale minces about the National Theatre stage like a bullfrog squeezed into a tutu. His facial expressions are worth the price of admission as he reacts with horror when friends discover that his son is—gasp—25! His eyes become beams of comic condescension when he turns them on the audience in an aside in which he accuses them of being peasants. But this is more than a caricature of a vain fool. Beale skillfully conveys Courtly's crestfallen humanity when he realizes he's been an ass, and the character becomes a multidimensional figure.
Sir Harcourt's opposite is the boisterous Lady Gay Spanker, an Amazonian fox-hunt enthusiast who crosses his path during a country weekend. He falls for her, and through a series of plot contrivances, she pretends to return the affections of the smitten popinjay. Beale meets his match in Fiona Shaw's Lady Gay, a sublime creation totally delighted by everything around her. All the world is a constant source of amusement for her, including the ridiculous Courtly, and Shaw revels in her joyful laughter. Her rapid-fire description of a thrilling horserace is a brilliant set piece of comic acting. When Beale and Shaw share the stage, it's theatrical heaven.
Paul Ready and Michelle Terry, as the obligatory young lovers, Charles and Grace, make the most of the secondary plot, particularly in the scene in which Grace feigns indifference to Charles' suit while dropping less-than-subtle hints that he should pursue her. Nick Sampson as the unflappable valet Cool, Matt Cross as the quick-witted con man Dazzle, and Richard Briers as Lady Gay's docile husband provide admirable support.
There are moments when screen director Robin Lough is unable to capture every moment of Nicholas Hytner's delicious staging. As the production is intended for the spacious National stage, the camera misses some of Beale's and Shaw's hilarious reactions to each other. That's the only flaw with this presentation.
NT Live has announced its next season, which will include Hytner's staging of "Hamlet," a new theatrical adaptation of "Frankenstein," the musical "Fela!," and the British theater company Complicite's "A Disappearing Number." I can hardly wait.
Presented by National Theatre Live on movie screens nationwide. For remaining screenings, visit www.ntlive.com.