Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Theatre review: She Stoops to Conquer

Jamie Lloyd's first production at the National isn't quite the high-speed ride you usually expect from him, coming in at just under three hours. But none of the time is wasted in She Stoops to Conquer, which is packed with incident and detail. Goldsmith's comedy has, on the surface of things, too many madcap plots swirling around - a prospective bridegroom mistaking his future in-laws' house for an inn and getting a bit too comfortable there, his friend trying to steal away their niece, a son from an earlier marriage causing no end of mischief, and a plot (by their rightful owner) to steal a box of jewels. That's without the romantic lead acting like a completely different person depending on whether he's talking to his future fiancée, or the sultry barmaid he's fallen for (who, unbeknownst to him, actually is that fiancée.) But Lloyd marshals the perfect cast around the Olivier stage in one of the funniest shows I've seen in ages.

Harry Hadden-Paton and John Heffernan as Marlow and Hastings, the pair of friends arrived from London, have a foppish chemistry, and each also works well with his leading lady: The oblivious Marlow is led a merry dance by Katherine Kelly's Kate Hardcastle, while The Heff shares lots of amusing glances and desperate gestures with Cush Jumbo as his illicit lover Constance. Steve Pemberton's Hardcastle is suitably flustered and David Fynn's Tony Lumpkin the play's lord of misrule. But while everyone is on top comic form, Sophie Thompson steals the show as Mrs Hardcastle. Her failed attempt at a posh accent to impress her city guests has no right to be as funny as it is but I was crying with laughter. The cheap front-of-stalls seats were particularly good value for a show so full of detail and apparent spontaneity.

Christopher had studied, and hated, the play at school but was willing to give it a go - often the least funny plays on the page are the funniest on the stage - and he was converted as well. I told him I didn't know what I'd write in this review as I'm so used to nitpicking but couldn't find anything to criticise here. I could say it takes a while to warm up but the decision to show up the exposition-heavy opening means I was on-side from the off. The play still works as a satire of snobbery - all the problems are the result of arbitrary class distinctions - as well as just being a joyous event. The National have had a good few months for hit comedies, for my money this is the pick of the bunch.

She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith is booking in repertory until the 21st of April at the National Theatre's Olivier.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

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