Hollywood has often been criticised for producing romantic comedies consisting of nothing more than “fluff.” Where they get this “fluff” from, I do not know, but I can only presume that it involves the slaughter of lots of cute, soft animals. Being a fan of cute, soft animals, it is with glee that I announce the National Theatre’s She Stoops to Conquer as my “feel good” romantic comedy of the year. The year, precisely, is 1773 and yet Jamie Lloyd’s production of this hysterical comedy of manners bubbles and bristles with such energy and exuberance that it triumphs Hollywood’s modern day attempts at the genre. In short, Bridget Jones must be wetting her great big knickers. And so she should, for Oliver Goldsmith’s play is not only generous in laughs but also in satire, conveying the absurdities of class snobbery in way that still firmly resonates today.
Mark Thompson’s set is so lovingly crafted, his depiction of a cosy country home so very inviting, that I felt a great desire to leap across the chairs and warm my hands by the roaring log fire. The ability to create a space of such intimacy and warmth within the vastness of the Olivier stage also works as a way to communicate the sheer hugeness of the characters within this seemingly small space. Hilarious moments such as Steve Pemberton’s Mr. Hardcastle wrenching parts of the set from the walls in order to attack Henry Hadden-Paton’s Young Marlow serve as great examples of pitch perfect overacting as large as the stage itself.
The sense of magic and mischief within the play creates an electrical atmosphere that embodies the whole production. The soaring energy of the chorus, as they carry us from each scene into the next with beautifully realised musical interludes, builds into a joyful explosion of dance within the final scene and ensures that you find yourself tapping along in your seat. Employing instruments such as pots and pans, the chorus’ presence amongst the main characters, cements them almost as naughty spirits rejoicing in the continuing mischief and is a great asset to this production.
And yet the master of mischief whom which the chorus serve is that of David Fynn’s Tony Lumpkin. Tony is both the unsuspecting hero of the play and indeed of this production as Fynne’s fantastically realised performance as the country booby and expert comic timing provide the biggest laughs. In a world of big confusion and even bigger performances, Katherine Kelly must also be commended for showing the constraint needed as Kate that manages to anchor the whole production and deliver the final emotional punch. This is not to say that she cannot also compete with the rest of the cast in terms of overacting and she happily hams it up in her disguise as a barmaid to great success.
The real success of this production lies in the strength of the cast as an ensemble in which each performer strikes perfectly the balance between tenderness and absurdity. Its desire to acknowledge the audience into the contrivances of the play, such as Mrs. Hardcastle’s (Sophie Thompson) exaggerated winks gives a very funny modern twist on this restoration comedy. Its ability to laugh along with us manifests best in moments such as Hasting’s curt warning, “not to encourage him,” as Hadden-Paton lurches from one strange pose to the next. Indeed I hope audiences continue to encourage this well deserving production for the rest of its fantastic run.