A big-hearted but fitful comedy in the wide-open spaces of the Olivier stage is a risky enterprise, but making his National Theater debut helmer Jamie Lloyd has aces up his sleeves. With the rampant activity pushed downstage on and in front of the huge Olivier turntable, designer Mark Thompson and lighting designer Neil Austin so tame the space and shape the action that the ebullient cast always look gloriously at home. Which, since Goldsmith’s 1771 romp “She Stoops To Conquer” is all about riotous goings-on around a family hearth, couldn’t be a happier fit.
Leaving aside his earlier, barely remembered “The Good-Natured Man,” Goldsmith was, theatrically speaking, a one-hit wonder. And despite its undoubted comic high-points delivered here with gusto, the creaky dramaturgy explains why that was the case. Who, for example, are the play’s lead characters?
At first, it looks like put-upon Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle (Steve Pemberton and Sophie Thompson), whose comfortable home plays host to the play’s subtitle: “The Mistakes of a Night.” But then it seems to be young buck Marlow (Harry Hadden-Paton), who fetches up there with his sidekick Hastings (John Heffernan), both of whom have marriage on their minds.
Yet the title and much of the play’s focus is on Hardcastle’s daughter Kate (spirited Katherine Kelly), who is due to be wooed by Marlow. Hastings, meanwhile, is secretly attempting to steal away Kate’s wealthy cousin Miss Neville (Cush Jumbo) who, if Mrs. Hardcastle has her way, will actually marry the lamebrain product of her first marriage, Tony Lumpkin (David Fynn.)
Not only do all of them jockey for lead position, they need setting up. By the beginning of the second half, when everything has been wound up like clockwork, comic momentum is unassailable, but exposition is Goldsmth’s weakest suit and the first half of the play, switching between Hardcastle’s home and a coaching inn, is saddled by the need to ride over the potholes of the plotting.
Lloyd’s masterstroke is to add a crowd of servants who not only create the all-important sense of the grand country household, but turn into a boisterous chorus. Sparkily choreographed by Ann Yee, they populate the cavernous stage and punctuate the action, most notably when singing Ben and Max Ringham’s deliciously silly, wordless music that Lloyd smartly uses to energise the transitions.
That well-sustained stage life, however, is dependent on the atmosphere generated by the main characters, almost all of whom attack the comedy with high style.
As well-bred Marlow let off the leash, Haddon-Paton, last seen as a repressed pilot in Rattigan’s stiff-upper-lipped “Flare Path,” reveals a winning streak of high preposterousness. Cripplingly awkward in front of women of his own class, faced with Kate pretending to be a flirtatious barmaid he flips into a liquid, living cartoon horse: Almost beside himself, he snorts, whinnies, paws and claws the air, in giddy anticipation of his conquest.
He’s matched strut for strut by John Heffernan, giving a virtual master class in effete self-possession, his hair-trigger comic timing finding huge laughs where none seemed possible.
Topping them both is Thompson’s Mrs. Hardcastle. With eyes the size of saucers and a overbearing manner, she wins exit applause for almost every scene she’s in. Her character’s assumption of a cosmopolitan manner is a cadenza of bleating and braying, her instantly assumed, elasticated high-class accent vaulting over not just counties but entire countries.
The surprise of the evening, however, is that Lloyd’s control of the flow keeps allowing touching emotions to surface. The play has distinctly clunky moments and a couple of the performances lack focus, but the sheer finesse of a production team firing on all cylinders is hugely enjoyable.
Production will be screened worldwide in an NTLive cinemacast March 29.