Outward Bound's signature twist became a cliché, while the chocolates named after Quality Street's much-loved characters ended up upstaging them entirely. But the hit run of Tom Taylor's Our American Cousin ended in darker fashion when, 150 years ago this month, it went down in history as the play Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated. It's that notoriety that now sees it revived to commemorate the anniversary. Sir Edward (Andrew McDonald) has lost all his money, as unbeknownst to him his steward Coyle (Daniel York) has been ripping him off for years. But there's still someone in the family with money - the titular distant cousin Asa (Solomon Mousley,) who's about to visit England for the first time.
Asa will indeed solve the family's problems, but not in the way they might be expecting: The gruff American puts the locals' noses out of joint to begin with, but as he learns everyone's secrets he comes up with plans to put everyone's life on track.
So his cousin Florence (Kelly Burke) is in love with the handsome sailor Harry Vernon (Rupert Elmes, whom I recognised even with his clothes on so well done me,) but until he gets a ship of his own to captain they can't afford to get married. Florence's former tutor Murcott (Julian Moore-Cook) has lost his job and fallen into alcoholism, and is now assistant to the dastardly Coyle. And distant cousin Mary (Olivia Onyehara) has been robbed of her inheritance and reduced to the post of dairy maid - what she doesn't know is that Asa's fortune is the one that should rightfully have been hers, and that he's fallen in love with her.
Its dubious claim to fame may have kept it off the stage in the first place, but it's probably all that'll ever keep it coming back as I'm not convinced Our American Cousin would have stayed in the repertoire over the centuries. A lot of its plot strands struggle to make sense, and there's a bit too obvious an attempt to create characters with verbal tics that might enter the public imagination like Mrs Malaprop did - there's the butler Binny* (Andy Rashleigh) adding an H to the start of words, and the fake invalid Georgina's (Hannah Britland) declarations of how terribly delicate she is. Most of all there's the foppish Lord Dundreary (Timothy Allsop,) a collection of unfunny puns and misunderstandings. The original actor, E.A. Sothern, apparently built up his small role with ad-libs that ended up becoming part of the text, and unfortunately it shows in how badly they've stood the test of time.
It defeats them in the first act, but after the interval it's fun to see Lydia Parker's cast overcome the dusty material with their enthusiasm and energy. Mousley's Asa exaggerates his hick origins to help his charm disarm people, and it's a charm that's infectious. Belly laughs were never on the table but he successfully leads the cast into making something likeable and fun out of the play's convoluted conclusion. With even this production's publicity featuring Lincoln's image, it's clear Our American Cousin will never again be known for anything other than its notorious moment in history, but this production does at times at least suggest why it was once so well-loved.
Our American Cousin by Tom Taylor is booking in repertory until the 14th of April at the Finborough Theatre (returns only.)
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.
*no sign of Della though