Musical: The model of an English burlesque

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The Independent Culture



THE KISSING-DANCE or She Stoops to Conquer. That's an "or", note, not an "either or". Charles Hart and Howard Goodall are insistent that Oliver Goldsmith is still very much the driving force of their "burlesque musical comedy" for the National Youth Music Theatre. The play's the thing. But then, so is the musical.

Hart, in particular, enjoys much sport with Goldsmith, nudging the text with his smart and rapacious lyrics, manipulating this comedy of ill manners so that its late-18th-century spirit is possessed of a late-20th- century tone. It's all in the word play. Goldsmith would, I fancy, have applauded Hart's dexterity and been more than happy to have him put words into his mouth. Hart and Goodall's "song strategy" is on the button: sometimes, their musical interjections take the form of quasi-recitatives - tantalising tasters, promise as yet unfulfilled; but mostly they are fully fledged "numbers", illuminating key intrigues and forwarding plot with Goldsmithian panache. There's a particularly fine example when Marlow and Hastings stop at the Fur and Feathers to ask directions to Nonesuch House. Tony Lumpkin's incomprehensible rewriting of the Ordnance Survey puts the spin on the entire evening. As Lumpkin later reminds us: "It's been up and down like a harlot's gown". That's Hart. Could Goldsmith have done better?

Then there's Goodall's music, its Englishness inbred in a way that has nothing to do with pastiche and can be defined only by its own very sweet, quirky, very distinctive character. The title number is a case in point - a shadowy little idyll of a tune, insidiously memorable. Goodall's love of polyphony (the English choral tradition) makes for some smashing ensembles, while his instrumentation cleverly hints at period and local colour, a piano accordion pointing up the inheritance of street music, a solo trumpet lending both melancholy and a blast of the tally-ho's to his racy Act 1 finale, the "hunt" for Lady Hardcastle's jewels.

There's a future for this piece, no question, but for now we have NYMT and the vision of directors Russell Labey and Jeremy James Taylor to thank for its first outing. If you're talent-spotting, you don't have to look far. On Tuesday night, initial nervousness made for inhibition and a sense of the house being underplayed. For a while the show was under starter's orders. But not for long. Ian Virgo's engaging Tony Lumpkin was banking on a photo-finish from the off; Akiya Henry's Constance took a feverish turn on the virginal; Alexander Hassell amusingly caught Marlow's breakdown of co-ordination when confronted with girls "of his own station"; Michael Jibson was affecting as Hastings; and Simon Thomas, as his servant Stingo, upstaged even his funny hat. Funny, too, was Jess Brooks' Mrs Hardcastle, while Neil Clench's glowering Dick Hardcastle was always going to fall victim to some Stoppardian name-play. "Small, Dick?" Naturally.