She Stoops to Conquer, Olivier, National Theatre
Wednesday 01 February 2012
I was amused to see a credit for an Etiquette Consultant in the programme for the National Theatre's new She Stoops to Conquer.
This is not because Jamie Lloyd's boisterously funny production of Goldsmith's classic 1773 comedy betrays any ignorance of the manners of the period. It's because the performance style is sometimes outrageously anachronistic in physical abandon. Particulary in the flirtation between Marlow (Harry Hadden-Paton) and Kate Hardcastle (Katherine Kelly), there are sequences where you feel that if the eighteenth century had had its Steven Berkoff and Matthew Bourne, the resulting choreography would have looked a bit like this.
Subtitled "The Mistakes of the Night", the comedy famously focuses on the trick whereby young Marlow is led to believe that the family residence of his prospective bride is, in fact, a country inn run by a landlord with delusions of grandeur. If this misapprehension is a tad unconvincing here because ot the palatial panelled set and huge stone fireplace that are needed to fill the vast Olivier stage (the handsome design is by Mark Thompson), Lloyd helps to animate the space with populous chorus of singing servants who tumble on between the acts and bang kitchen and domestic utensils like a prankish precursor of the skiffle band.
Fresh from Coronation Street, the endearingly lanky Katherine Kelly gives a performance of beautifully natural and unforced comic authority as Kate, the daughter of the house who masquerades as a serving-girl to check out Marlow. His (not uncommon) quirk is that he is bashful and tongue-tied with girls of his own class and can only loosen up with the proles. I've seen productions that hint at the unpleasant side to this but here it's satirised as a ridiculously raunchy rutting dance with the witty, endlessly nice-seeming Hadden-Patton (not for nothing was he recenty cast as MIchal Palin) pawing the ground and making horns while Kelly archly rears her rump in mock-readiness for one of the not-so-side-benefits of mating.
Sophie Thompson is in glorious form as the domineering and would-be social-climbing Mrs Hardcaste, her accent careering all over at least two countries as it struggles to hit a sufficiently fashionable note and her features gurning through a repertoire of unerringly unrefined expressions. There's wonderful moment when she drops a deep, graceful curtsey and has to be hauled by main force back upright. Looking like the love-child of Steve Coogan and the late Patrick Campbell, the splendid John Heffernan, as Hastings, offers an object lesson in how to be langudily elegant and amusingly brisk at the same time. A delight.
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