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Theatre Cat, Libby Purves Reviews
A SNORTER? OR A SMOKED POSSUM?
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.
The Guardian, Michael Billington
Our American Cousin review – Yankee hero saves the play but not the president
3 / 5 stars
“And how did you enjoy the play, Mrs Lincoln?” runs a famously tasteless quip. We’ll never know the answer, but this is the work that she and President Lincoln were watching on the night of his assassination at Ford’s theatre, Washington, 150 years ago. Written in 1851 by the prolific Tom Taylor, it turns out to be a jaunty comic melodrama astonishingly similar in style and tone to the work of Taylor’s Irish contemporary, Dion Boucicault.
Taylor was clearly a smart operator, since he realised London in 1851 would be packed with visitors to the Great Exhibition. Accordingly, he flatters them with a portrait of a rough-hewn but good-hearted Yankee hero coming to the rescue of a decaying English aristocracy. Asa Trenchard, the visitor from Vermont, may use a funny lingo and dispense ferocious cocktails, but he saves an impecunious Hampshire baronet from financial ruin and his daughter from a disastrous marriage. At the same time, Asa sacrifices his own fortune to marry a distant relative reduced to working as a dairymaid.
While being a successful dramatist, Taylor went on to become editor of Punch and you can see this in his somewhat heavy-handed humour and strenuous wordplay. The play’s most ostensibly comic character is Lord Dundreary, who makes the archetypal English silly-ass look positively moronic and who all too typically says of his putative fiancee: “Fetch Miss Georgina a pail of water – no she looks pale enough already.”
Solomon Mousley as Asa Trenchard and Timothy Allsop as Lord Dundreary in Our American Cousin. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian
Fortunately, Taylor redeems himself in his portrait of the hero. Billed in advance as an “Apollo of the prairies”, he turns out to be a totally engaging figure who mocks the ingrained English class system, punctures pomposity and thwarts villainy. His presence saves the play, as well as the day, and has much the same impact as Groucho Marx might if he were suddenly to turn up in Downton Abbey.
In Lydia Parker’s production he is exuberantly played by Solomon Mousley who, with his rakishly angled felt hat and sharply cherubic features, resembles a young Mark Rylance.
Timothy Allsop struggles heroically with the laboriously unfunny Lord Dundreary and there is good support from Kelly Burke as the baronet’s vivacious daughter and Hannah Britland as a model of Victorian delicacy with a voracious appetite. Erika Gundesen also provides pleasant piano accompaniment to a play that survives as an amusing period piece, but is not exactly a work to die for.
British Theatre Guide, Phillip Fisher
Our American Cousin is possibly the most famous play of all time, from a historical perspective.
While almost nobody could name it and the playwright Tom Taylor is sadly long forgotten, the work first seen in 1858 has taken on a quasi-mythical status.
That is because this is the play that President Abraham Lincoln was enjoying when John Wilkes Booth brought his life and tenure to an abrupt closure.
Theatre's most infamous moment took place 150 years ago on April 14, hence this timely revival by Lydia Parker for Over Here Theatre.
Our American Cousin was one of those Victorian Sensations that combines melodrama with elements of the stuff that today makes up TV sitcoms and soap operas.
The events take place in the stately home of the Trenchards, "one of the first families in the country" but crippled by debt for reasons that are never fully explained.
Gathered there in front of an over-sized portrait of a stag, which splits impressively when bosky countryside is needed, those that pass through the house are as rum a collection as any playwright could hope for.
The home team consists of dull Sir Edward and his bright, vivacious daughter Florence, played with wit and spirit by Kelly Burke.
The guests include a trio (mother and two daughters) of unmannerly gold-diggers, a bunch of rich supernumeraries and Timothy Allsop's splendid Lord Dundreary.
This last could have been a model for Monty Python's Upper Class Twits. As such, he is a fine comic ass who enlivens proceedings with absurd idiocy.
The drama is spiced up by the arrival of a long-lost American cousin. Solomon Mousley has real stage presence and lifts the evening in his role as the country bumpkin from Vermont.
While his manners are laughably uncultured, Asa has native intelligence and a good heart, effortlessly but amusingly running rings around the pretensions of polite society.
That is as well, after he discovers that Daniel York as the Baronet's dastardly agent is intent on defrauding the Trenchards of their birthright.
He also threatens Florence with a fate worse than... But how can one finish that sentence given the events that were to take place on the other side of the Atlantic seven years after the play first saw the light of day?
The American's reward is the hand of simple milkmaid (and another Trenchard cousin) Mary Meredith. Not only does Olivia Onyehara win the visitor's heart but she sings like an angel in one of several variety turns that complement the plotting.
In this kind of play, a happy ending is de rigueur, with couples lined up around the small playing space to get wed as the baddie departs.
Our American Cousin is probably best remembered for its history but it offers a pleasant if undemanding 2¼ hours with enough laughs to justify the price of a ticket and the chance to see how our forefathers entertained themselves.
Bargain Theatreland, Robbie Lumsden
In terms of finding a place in history books or as an answer to a Trivial Pursuit question, being the play that Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was shot has certainly helped Our American Cousin. In maintaining its place in the theatrical repertoire, it’s not been so good: this revival will be its first in London for over a century. But when it was on in the Ford Theatre in 1865, it had already been running for seven years and was such a well-known reference that the name of one of the characters, Dundreary, had become the common term for a style of sideburns. Indeed there’s an argument that John Wilkes Booth turned the play’s success to his own nefarious ends: a well-known actor himself, the President’s assassin knew which lines would cause such hilarity that he could use the ensuing uproar to mask the sound of his gunshot.
So is it just a historical curiosity or does it stand up on its own? In other hands it could have been a drag, but in Lydia Parker’s production it’s a total hoot. If some revivals seek to uncover lost gems from the murk of old theatrical styles, this just accepts what a mess Tom Taylor’s play is and runs with it. And it does this to great effect. The plot, for what it’s worth, seems to have started off as a grand serious Victorian drama involving mortgages, inheritances and alcoholic former teachers learning the error of their ways. Over time though it has had a whole load of broad comedy added. This mixing up of genres can make it seem seem all over the place to modern eyes: part farce, part melodrama, with a bit of romantic comedy and some quite spectacular innuendo chucked in as well. If it reminds you of anything, it’s pantomime and that might not be all wrong: those shows are maybe the last remnants of this old style of popular theatricals.
If the writing seems awfully creaky at points, the production is made by the brilliant comic performances. Solomon Mousley is full of charm as the American cousin, acting as a perfect foil for the series of hilarious grotesques that surround him. While Dundreary was the main draw when it first opened, his lines are so tiresome and groanworthy that if played on their own for comic effect it would be a long evening. Timothy Allsop, playing him with stuck on sideburns and yellow waistcoat that gives him an uncanny resemblance to Bradley Wiggins, performs with such gusto that you don’t mind his painfully strained wordplay. To pick out particular actors seems unfair though: the entire cast are excellent and the feeling you get watching is of enormous exuberance.
Credit should be given to Parker for her direction, which manages to corral all these disparate elements skilfully and understands exactly when you need to add a dance routine to carry a scene along. While she and her company may not have recovered a great overlooked work, they are responsible for an immensely fun evening.