She Stoops to Conquer, NT Olivier, London
The House of Bernarda Alba, Almeida, London
The Changeling, Young Vic, Maria, London
Everyone tries a bit too hard in this comic revival, but it's impossible not to warm to the cheery, good-looking confection
Sunday 05 February 2012
Location, location, location. Marlow, a young city buck out in the sticks, has lost his bearings in Oliver Goldsmith's 18th-century comedy She Stoops to Conquer. Sporting fancy breeches and tricorne hats, Marlow and his chum Hastings are played with prancing brio by Harry Hadden-Paton and John Heffernan in a handsome production – an oak-panelled set spinning on the Olivier's grand revolve.
The two chums are seeking Squire Hardcastle's manor, where Marlow is due to woo the heiress, Kate. Unaware they've reached their destination, the pair think they've merely rolled up at an inn, and so, nonchalantly slinging their feet up on the furniture, they treat the increasingly outraged Squire like an alehouse lackey. Yet Kate (Katherine Kelly, formerly of Coronation Street) is happy to continue being mistaken for a servant, twigging that Marlow is more frisky with her that way.
Camping it up like public-school boys behaving badly, Hadden-Paton and Heffernan make a charming couple of sillies – a far cry from the Bullingdon Club bully played by HP in Laura Wade's Posh. In the interests of comedy, Marlow's uninhibited wench-fancying is played tongue-in-cheek, more Rowan Atkinson than suave rover, launching into mock-flamenco mating twirls with much flapping of his frock coat.
The joke is that, when introduced to women of his own class, he morphs into a nervous wreck with a poignant stammer (an impediment Goldsmith himself suffered).
This double-act aside, director Jamie Lloyd's NT debut leaves a fair bit to be desired, with some of the cast beginning dull and stiff, including Kelly herself and Steve Pemberton (from The League of Gentlemen) as Hardcastle. Elsewhere, the supporting performances go so over-the-top you might think we were still in panto season.
The musical numbers inserted between every scene are tiresomely perky, and Sophie Thompson's endless gurning as Mrs Hardcastle looks like a crude attempt to steal the show. She is nonetheless very funny when feigning cosmopolitan sophistication, her rustic vowels veering towards South Kensington by way of Shanghai.
Almost everyone grows on you over the course of the night, including Pemberton's Hardcastle – a touchingly progressive patriarch who arranges his daughter's courtship but then lets her manage it herself. Goldsmith's set-up is still highly amusing and, by tipping the audience the wink, this company make the multiple plot twists very clear and droll.
The titular matriarch in The House of Bernarda Alba has no need to stoop to conquer. She's a domestic tyrant who rules her pent-up, unmarried daughters with a rod of iron, sequestering them from the eyes of men and banning lowly suitors. It's a policy that breeds infighting, rebellion and despair.
In Bijan Sheibani's production, using a new translation by Emily Mann, Lorca's Spanish Civil War tragedy migrates from 1930s Andalucia to today's rural Iran. A muezzin's call floats over the rooftops as Mia Soteriou's housemaid scrubs Bernarda's tiled floor. Returning from their father's funeral, Bernarda's daughters are swathed in sweltering black chadors which they are clearly desperate to shed. Grimly, we later hear a mob in the street, stoning an unchaste woman.
The production is designed with beautiful austerity by Bunny Christie, and Jon Clark's lighting is superb, with pale sunlight filtering through a skylight, and blinding flashes closing each scene, like emotional explosions. Outstanding among the cast (all-female except for one extra who was surely a bloke in a veil) is Amanda Hale's quietly desperate Elmira, and Jane Bertish as Bernarda's loyal but caustic housekeeper. Crucially, alas, among the weak links is Shohreh Aghdashloo as Bernarda. Though splendidly elegant and smoky of voice, she comes across as a languid diva, never illuminating her insecurities.
To be a man would be "the soul of freedom", cries Jessica Raine's transgressive Beatrice-Joanna in The Changeling, determining to wed whom she desires, rather than her father's choice of fiancé. Daniel Cerqueira's pustulating De Flores, a scabrous servant, obligingly murders the unwanted fiancé, only to demand sexual favours of Beatrice-Joanna in return. Thus the romance she sought turns into a horror story, with veins of black humour, in Middleton and Rowley's Jacobean drama.
Joe Hill-Gibbins's modern-dress and in-the-round production takes its tone from Ultz's brutalist designs, all raw plywood, construction-site lamps and rolling steel cages. The trouble is that the narrative comes over as scrappy and rushed, with the grotesque writhings of the adultery and death scenes shallowing out into a lame food fight, everyone dripping jelly and custard.
Still, Hill-Gibbins's cast cope valiantly, Raine has a fine neurotic viciousness, and the entire play's twisted nastiness succeeds in giving you the creeps.
'She Stoops to Conquer' (020-7452 3000) to 21 Apr; 'The House of Bernarda Alba' (020-7359 4404) to 10 Mar; 'The Changeling' (020-7922 2922) to 25 Feb
Kate Bassett renews the acquaintance of Alan Ayckbourn's Absent Friends
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