Witty, worldy and wildly funny, Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy of manners is brought to life with aplomb and enthusiasm in this lusty, joyous production at the Olivier Theatre. Complete with sumptuous period costume, a revolving set and some very clever scene transitions courtesy of an ensemble cast of singing servants, Jamie Lloyd’s revival of She Stoops to Conquer is a firecracker from start to finish.
Mistaken identity always makes for a frolic of a play (Shakespeare knew) and this romp certainly proves the point. Marlow and Hastings, two foppish gents down from town, find themselves lost in the country on the way to the Hardcastle residence, where they are to meet Marlow’s potential new bride, Kate. They wind up in the local drinking hole where, as luck (or misfortune) would have it, they meet a drunken Tony Lumpkin, Kate’s mischevious half-brother. He directs them to the Hardcastle house, but tells them it is a country inn where they might stay the night. Hilarity ensues and insults abound as Marlow and Hastings make themselves at home amongst the aghast Hardcastle’s fine (if rather rustic) furnishings. But one dilemma remains: Marlow is as chatty as a monkey with ladies of lesser means, but becomes a jibbering wreck when faced with a modest woman of class. Kate’s solution? Disguise herself as a barmaid of course, to entrap her potential husband and toy with him along the way.
Tightly choreographed chaos reigns in this production, but the storytelling in the hands of the hard-working cast and director Lloyd is strong and clear. Beneath the humour, after all, lies a serious subject indeed; the good name and fortune of two modest, upstanding ladies are at stake and nobody is going to stand for that, least of all the hysterical Mrs Hardcastle. Sophie Thompson is sensationally snappy and simpering as this fashion and image-obsessed housewife, and with the characters’ many asides to the audience, it isn’t hard to draw the inevitable comparisons with aspects of society today. Any scene she shares with the wonderful Steve Pemberton as her long-suffering spouse is utterly engaging. Commanding the stage, Thompson ensures that however funny she is, Mrs Hardcastle remains a well-rounded character. At no moment does anyone feel pantomime or one-dimensional.
It is a skilled cast who manage to keep the audience on side and engaged through Goldsmith’s frenzied and frisky text, which moves at a whisk. We form a relationship with almost every character, sympathising with them as well as loving to hate their vanity, pride, greed and envy. Everyone has foibles and the cast glory in them rather than shying away from the complexities of character. Kate Hardcastle is, as her name suggests, the very epitome of steely fortification, not easily won or swiftly stolen, reminiscent of an earlier, shrew-like Kate. Katherine Kelly manages to carry off her confident, almost harsh, exterior, whilst allowing the tenderness within to slowly emerge, peeping out through the cracks like sunbeams until, at the end of the play, she is positively radiant. Kelly clearly relishes, too, the chance to let loose and get rustic as she impersonates a barmaid to ensnare the quivering Marlow. Cush Jumbo as Hastings’s love match Constance Neville is equally delightful, capturing perfectly the balance of passion, practicality and prudence that so defined romantic relationships of the time.
It is the double act of Harry Hadden-Paton and John Heffernan as Marlow and Hastings that offers much of the most physical of the comedy here. Their posing and posturing is loveably ridiculous, especially when coupled with David Fynn’s kind-hearted but cheekily playful and decidedly down-to-earth Lumpkin, but as events unravel we do see another side to these frivolous fops. They do have hearts hidden deep within their gold-embroidered waistcoats and the dripfeed of change is paced beautifully within the frantic and frenetic non-stop action of the play.
Every performance in this slick production is measured, calm and completely in control of the space, demonstrating the sheer skill of the acting talent on offer. With colourful clowning around and just the right amount of boisterous, bawdy boys, this is an eighteenth-century farce with a heart: a veritable feast for the senses and a stitch for your split side.
She Stoops to Conquer plays at the Olivier Theatre until Saturday 21 April. To book tickets and for more information, visit the National Theatre’s website.
Image credit: John Persson