She Stoops to Conquer – National Theatre
For many years, Oliver Goldsmith’s farcical comedy of manners rested in the doldrums, the stuff of school plays and good, clean fun. Now the National Theatre has brought to life this gem of the eighteenth century in one of the merriest evenings on the London stage.
We enter the theatre to a glorious manor house, a fire blazing and beyond, the deep dark woods. The play opens with a pastiche of period operatic singing – don’t let that put you off – and then to Hardcastle (Steven Pemberton), a member of the gentry with great ambitions for the marriage of his daughter Kate to Marlow.
Hardcastle’s stepson Tony Lumpkin (David Fynn) immediately impresses, a comic hulk of a bumpkin, swilling beer and womanising with the frankly very resistible Bet Bouncer and, as the action switches to the public house, we’re taken straight to the world of grotesque world of Hogarth and The Rake’s Progress.
As Marlow (played with superb comic timing by Harry Hadden-Paton) and Hastings (an effete and totally convincing man of sentiment played by John Heffernan) are duped into believing that Hardcastle is an innkeeper and his home a superior country inn, the farce begins. Indeed, every set piece of farce seems to make it: revealing letters, double identities, eavesdropping, unfortunate entrances in moments of delicacy….Dancing, folksy music and a wonderful playfulness with language and the stereotype of the yokel add to the festive sense of comedy.
This is a wonderful piece of ensemble acting. Katherine Kelly, ex-Corrie star and the draw for many, was ‘indisposed’ for our performance, but understudy Zoe Rainey stood in as Kate Hardcastle with perfect comic timing and a radiance and sense of mischief which grew over the course of the play, accompanied by the equally dishy ward Constance Neville (Cush Jumbo). Rainey’s performance, particularly when posturing as a bar maid, and her desire to win the love of Marlow, was something of a highlight. And Sophie Thompson (ex-Eastender and Inside Soap’s Bitch of the Year) brought the house down with her hilarious interpretation of Mrs Hardcastle, who ranged from psychotic to scheming and, as a perfumer, demonstrated the most amazing comic capabilities when it came to accents.
At two and three quarter hours, this is no dumbed down version of the script. But believe me, you won’t find yourself admiring the lighting rig (my preferred reaction to moments of theatrical boredom). However great the many other comedies on at the moment are, this is without question the warmest and most generous.