Sunday, February 05, 2012

Theatre Review : She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith - Olivier Theatre (dir Jamie Lloyd 30/1/12)

The plot of She Stoops to Conquer is as insanely clever as theatre has ever devised - Mr Hardcastle (Steve Pemberton) would like his daughter to be married to Marlow, the son of an old friend, so invites him to his house. However, Hardcastle's loutish step-son Toby Lumpkin (David Fynn) intercepts him, and tells him that Hardcastle's home where he will stay the night is in fact an inn. Marlow has an unusual impediment, in that he can freely chat up women of a lower class but is completely tongue-tied in the presence of ladies of quality. Which makes him fortunate to think that he is staying in an inn, and that Hardcastle's daughter Kate (Katherine Kelly) is a serving girl.

Goldsmith's satire is very effective. In mistaking Hardcastle's house for an Inn, and Hardcastle for an Innkeeper, Marlow and his companion Hastings (John Heffernan) treat both with the disrespect to be expected at the time, and it is still today fresh and funny. As is typical in plays of the time, Hardcastle's wife (overplayed deliciously by Sophie Thompson) has aspirations above her country station, and all the humour derives from the confusions of upper versus lower class, and rural simplicity versus urban sophistication.

The humour is drawn out by the cast quite rightly overplaying everything - this is not a play to benefit from subtlety. Marlow switches easily from tongue-tied lover to skirt-chasing rogue, whilst Kate moves with equal facility from charming young daughter to sluttish serving girl.

Jamie Lloyd's production uses the Olivier's revolving stage to great effect as he switches seamlessly from inside to outside Hardcastle Hall, the only downside being the rather twee song and dance numbers which fill the gaps during the set changes.

After a slow start (this was the first preview) both cast and audience got into the rhythms of the humour and the cast seemed to feed on the laughs they were receiving from the stalls. By the end, part of the audience was on its feet, and, if that was perhaps an overreaction, it was certainly a most enjoyable production of a play that still retains its freshness more than 200 years since its first production.

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