It had been a few weeks since the last theatre visit, so I was very much looking forward to returning to one of my favourite “spaces” The Olivier Theatre at The National to see She Stoops to Conquer. If my first theatre trip of the year is to be a bench mark of what’s to come, whoopee, for Oliver Goldsmith’s comedy of confusion and mistaken identity was an absolute delight – the best medicine for a dose of winter blues.
The plot of this joyous Restoration Comedy centres around two young blades, Marlowe and Hastings, who are tricked into mistaking a country house, belonging to Mr. & Mrs. Hardcastle, for an inn. Hardcastle has high hopes of a match between his daughter, Kate and Marlowe, but begins to doubt his choice when the young man treats him as the inn keeper and all hell breaks loose.
A truly wonderful cast, ably abetted by a stunning set courtesy of designer Mark Thompson and expert direction by Jamie Lloyd, ensure that this production, whilst true to its origins, is bang up to date. I particularly loved the chorus of singing servants who tumble on between acts banging kitchen utensils.
Restoration Comedy is, to my mind, a difficult genre to get right; each character is exaggerated but must not tip over into overacting. Here it works to perfection, most notably by the wonderful Sophie Thompson playing Mrs. Hardcastle. Her hilarious accents and wonderful gurning face are enough to ensure the audience is kept amused throughout and I mustn't forget the excellent bit of business involving a curtesy.
She is not alone, however. Harry Hadden-Paton as Marlow, who is a nervous gibbering wreck when speaking to women of his own class but a rampant letch in the company of serving wenches, is superb. He switches with consummate ease; the painfully shy, inhibited young man unable to even look at Kate Hardcastle, to the pawing, sexual stallion in the company of Kate playing a barmaid; hilarious. Plus his pairing with John Heffernan’s Hastings is a magical piece of casting, a double act par excellence. I particularly enjoyed his ecstacic delight when thinking of wearing a white and gold coat. Much has been said about the casting of ex Coronation Street actress, Katherine Kelly, as Kate Hardcastle. Her return to the stage is a triumph, as she hits just the right note, not only when playing Kate as the spirited daughter sussing out her father’s choice of husband, but also when turning on the sexual charm whilst posing as a barmaid. David Flynn’s Tony Lumpkin, Mr. Hardcastle’s stepson who sets up the whole plot, is also spot on, as is Steve Pemberton as Mr. Hardcastle himself.
This is yet another riotous evening at the theatre. Long may it continue!