“Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no fibs”
Oliver Goldsmith’s 18th century comedy She Stoops to Conquer was last seen at the National Theatre in 2002 in an Out of Joint co-production, but has now been revived by the seemingly tireless Jamie Lloyd with a star-studded ensemble dripping with talent, both established and new, and breathing an entirely fresh energy into the Olivier theatre.
This comedy of manners centres on the Hardcastle clan, a family of means in the country: daughter Kate is due to be married off to young Marlow, the son of a friend of Mr Hardcastle’s but she is determined to ensure the match is to her liking; Mrs Hardcastle is determined to have her heiress ward Miss Neville married off to her own son Tony in order to keep her fortune in the family though Miss Neville’s attentions are focused on Marlow’s friend Hastings. But when Marlow and Hastings get lost on their way from London and end up in a bawdy inn frequented by Tony, he espies an opportunity to make mayhem and sets in chain a series of mischiefs, misunderstandings and mistaken identities as convoluted courtships and class differences collide in the countryside.
In some respects, this is a fairly straight production, there’s no overly tricksy central conceit or left-field interpretation foisted upon the action to try and make it a timely state-of-the-nation revival. Rather, Lloyd infuses energy into the show by punctuating scenes with bursts of percussive, wordless singing from the servants – it’s warmly silly stuff but serves well to heighten the richly comic mood. Ben and Max Ringham’s music fits in perfectly alongside Yvonne Milner’s beautifully designed and constructed costumes, dresses and peacoats in glorious colours and sumptuous fabrics, and Mark Thompson’s set evoking the echoing, faded grandeur of the Hardcastles’ manor and briefly utilising the revolve to shift locations to an inn and a rather spooky garden.
And though we’re still in preview territory, there’s a great tautness to proceedings and the vast majority of comic beats hit full on. The minor criticism comes with the interval coming a little bit late, especially as there’s a point earlier on where the production feels like it is coming to a natural pause and then continues, and there was a slight loss of energy and verve towards the end as each strand resolves itself though this could be the play as much as anything.
There really is an embarrassment of riches in this cast though which lifts the production from being just a funny play into something special. Whether it is Sophie Thompson’s expressions of outrage or slightly too deep curtseys or Steve Pemberton’s blustering indignation as Mrs and Mr Hardcastle whose hospitality is stretched as they each try and steer the course of young love to their advantage; David Fynn’s oafish and delightfully crude Tony Lumpkin repeatedly missing the point; or an ensemble that includes such up-and-coming musical theatre names as Terry Doe, Zoe Rainey and Amy Booth-Steel.
But the attention is mainly on the four leads (at least when Sophie Thompson isn’t stealing it) and rightly so. Katherine Kelly (fresh from leaving Coronation Street and looking very pretty as a brunette) sparkles as the spirited Kate who is more than ready to be saucy when needs be, and is well-matched with Cush Jumbo (whom I’ve loved both times I’ve seen her at the Royal Exchange in Manchester – Pygmalion and a truly revelatory As You Like It) in scintillating form as cousin and ally Constance Neville. Superficially, they may swish coquettishly in their frocks but also present a steely determination to exercise as much power as they can over their destinies, even as society tries to determine it for them – Jumbo particularly excellent at the pained realisation that all her effort may have been for nought.
And then there’s Harry Hadden-Paton and John Heffernan as Marlow and Hastings, the would-be suitors who are led a merry dance from the off and are both, in their different ways, outrageously hilariously brilliant. Played as extraordinary fops, I loved the scene where they were comparing notes on the best outfits in which to make the ideal first impression, the pair bounce off each other with great camaraderie throughout. Hadden-Paton amuses as the tongue-tied buffoon who can’t even look at a woman of his own class but is a scream when presented with the opportunity to rakishly rut with a barmaid, his toff-gone-wild antics terrifyingly realistic (or one would imagine so at least!). And Heffernan, of whom we are great fans here in case you hadn’t noticed (and whose Richard II last year for the Tobacco Factory far outshone Eddie Redmayne’s if truth be told) reveals a hitherto only-hinted-at gift for comedy with the most playful and witty of performances, his facial expressions in particular are a joy to behold and every utterance of the word ‘booby’ is to be savoured for its deliciousness.
This was the first time I’d seen this show (although I did see the Howard Goodall/Charles Hart musical adaptation The Kissing-Dance last year so had some familarity with the plot) and so you will have to look elsewhere for comparisons with other productions and whether it takes any liberties with the text or plot etc. What I can tell you is that this is a finely drilled production that shines with comedic gold and effervescent energy and marks a significant success for Jamie Lloyd who has married perfectly his own style to the ethos of the National Theatre’s to create something both greater than the sum of its considerable parts and which feels like a potential blueprint for how the NT might introduce a more modern aesthetic to update its house style.