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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  John Heffernan and Cush Jumbo/ Ph: Johan Persson

Full of bounce and merriment, the National's production of Oliver Goldsmith's comedy of errors has much to delight its audience. For some, however, it may have too much – the audience that director Jamie Lloyd has in mind is more lowbrow than the one out front.
To be sure, the premise of She Stoops to Conquer is the sort that amuses simpletons like the practical joker Tony Lumpkin, who directs two London gentlemen to an "inn" that is really the local squire's home. Mr. Hardcastle, who is expecting one of them, Mr. Marlow, as a prospective bridegroom for his daughter, Kate, is outraged by their condescension, but, she, realising the mistake, profits by it. Like many rich Englishmen to this day, Marlow, while paralytically shy in the presence of ladies, loosens up among servants – and other types left unnamed. Cue Kate's appearance, with broad accent and deep décolletage, as a barmaid (an inside joke here – the actress, Katherine Kelly, became famous pulling pints in the soap opera Coronation Street).
But this very polite comedy also has a warmth and humanity lacking in the bawdy plays of the previous century. In their terms – or today's – Kate's masquerade would simply be a form of sex therapy. Goldsmith, however, realises that Marlow's problem isn't solved just by treating a lady like a whore. His evasiveness and his carousing are both defenses against love. Before the couple can marry, he must learn to feel – and show – affection and respect.
The scene in which Harry Hadden-Paton achieves this transformation is the best of several in which this personable young actor provides much of the delight on offer. Most of the rest come from John Heffernan, deliciously droll as Marlow's best friend, and Sophie Thompson as the squire's wife, whose apparent dementia from rural isolation is imperfectly suppressed by her desire to appear to the Londoners a paragon of sophistication.
Thompson's shrieking and mooing, however, draw laughs at the expense of the play; she gives us a string of comic effects rather than a characterisation. And it seems odd that none of the characters asks the lovely Cush Jumbo, as Kate's cousin, why her forearms keep jerking this way and that, like a semaphore machine gone mad. It's even more jarring to have Kelly raise her dress thigh-high to gain Marlow's attention, or suggestively offer him her bust or bustle, especially since she makes such a point of her good character. (Such gestures do nothing to increase the appeal of an actress of haggard looks and prosy manner.) Like Jumbo's readiness to fall backward, with parted legs, at a man's touch, these antics indicate a strange idea of what audiences will regard indulgently as flirting and cuddling. Sadly, though, Lloyd is only copying what other directors have for years now done in period plays. I can't, however, recall another who has embarrassed his leading man by making him prance in place and shake his head like a tethered stallion to indicate erotic interest.
Even more annoying, Lloyd uses another director's invention but blows it up to the point of obesity. Last year, at the little Southwark Playhouse, Jessica Swale put on two 18th-century comedies in which the characters sang cheerfully and anachronistically between scenes. In Lloyd's hands, these brief touches of high spirits become protracted whanging, clanging choruses for the servants, who beat spoons on pots and bawl fa-la-la and ba-ba-ba-ba-dum. It should surprise no readers at this point to learn that, in another priceless comic touch, Lloyd has four servants listening outside a door poke their heads into view in a vertical row, as so often seen in Tom and Jerry cartoons.
Judging by the mainly and wildly favourable reaction, however, Lloyd has guessed right about most of his audience, and can even feel justified in contributing to their drama education. See, they can say to each other on the way out, they weren't so boring in the 18th century – they had sit-coms, too. 


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