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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  John Heffernan and David Fynn/ Ph: Johan Persson

Oliver Goldsmith's delightfully farcical She Stoops to Conquer (or, if you prefer, comedy of bad manners) relies on that age-old stand-by, mistaken identity, and pivots on the misadventures of a pair of young London blades who are misled into believing that the  country home they are visiting is an inn rather than the rambling private residence owned and inhabited by the Hardcastles. 

Mistaking Mr. Hardcastle (Steve Pemberton) for the local innkeeper, the rakish Marlow (Harry Hadden-Paton) patronises the old man disgracefully and further mistakes his beautiful daughter Kate (Katherine Kelly) for a barmaid, whom he aggressively sets out to seduce.

In what must surely have been a very rare occurrence for a play written in 1773, Marlow, we learn, has a serious sexual hang-up. He is physically incapable, or so it would appear, to make love to women of his own class, far preferring wenches to ladies of education and breeding. Aware of his little problem, Kate, who in reality possesses all these qualities, is everything Marlow tends to avoid, and the thrust of Goldsmith's masterpiece is the manner in which Kate successfully resolves his sexual dilemma.

A sub-plot involves a clandestine romance between Marlow's traveling companion Hastings (John Heffernan) and Constance (Cush Jumbo), Mrs. Hardcastle's niece who has been romantically earmarked for her oafish, unprepossessing son Tony (David Flynn). Trouble is, Constance and Tony cannot stand each other.

With the well-oiled mechanics of the plot neatly in place, all that is required of any production of She Stoops to conquer an audience are a brace of brilliant comic turns by the older members of the cast, a quartet of appealing romantic leads, and direction that allows the piece to arrive at its inevitable happy ending unmolested.

Goldsmith subtitled his play "The Mistakes of a Night," and the National's first revival of the piece in about 10 years is, alas, awash with them, the most serious being director Jamie Lloyd's seeming lack of confidence in the material. What other excuse can he have had for pummeling this proven text so mercilessly? Irritating musical interludes involving the entire staff in Hardcastle's employ begin practically every scene change with the same indifferent song. The acting, most notably Sophie Thompson's grotesque Mrs. Hardcastle (complete with matching accent) is way over the top. Pemberton as her husband mugs outrageously. For much of the time the body-language of Haden-Paton and Heffernen as the visiting Londoners suggest a couple of screaming queens rather than the attractive, eligible rakes Goldsmith intended.

Only Kelly as Kate Hardcastle understands the way period comedy ought to be played. She's an unconditional delight. As are the sets by Mark Thompson, which make excellent use of the Olivier's wonderful drum revolve. The rest, to quote the Bard, is silence.


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