A showstopper of a matron: Sophie Thompson as Mrs Hardcastle in "She Stoops to Conquer"
How broad can the National Theatre's comedy go? A country mile judging by its rollicking production of Goldsmith's comedy of errors, She Stoops To Conquer, which takes the great satire of 18th-century class divides and country manners and turns it into gurning, pantoesque fun. Sometimes.
My inner churl is beginning to revolt against the uniform approach the National brings to most comedy it touches, from One Man, Two Guvnors to The Comedy of Errors and now Goldsmith's work which, at its best, balances observations about the town-country divide and luckless fortune-hunters with belly-laughs and jolly confusions. I wonder if there isn't a smidgen of audience distrust here: a fear that we mustn't be allowed to muse or reflect as we watch, but need the relentless spur of the big laugh to keep us in our seats.
Marlow (Harry Hadden-Paton), a man who can only conquer his social and other inhibitions with lower-class wenches, is due to woo an heiress. Fortunately for him, he is about to mistake his intended, feisty Kate (Katherine Kelly), for a barmaid, having first convinced himself that her father's shabby country house is an inn. Everything that might go wrong in the space of a few hours then does.
With John Heffernan as his mate Hastings, the two young bloods do bear a painful resemblance to David Cameron and George Osborne before they de-poshed themselves. What goes amiss, when classic comedies are directed as full-tilt farce, however, are the finer-grained observations, like Goldsmith's awareness of the cutting edge of snobbery and the way that sexual mores are intertwined with status. So Marlow denounces hypocrisy prudishly, when he thinks Kate is a rich man's daughter, only to leap on her like a satyr when he believes her to be a servant. There is more of a wincing quality to Goldsmith's writing than this giggly approach and Jamie Lloyd's breakneck direction allow to shine through.
An awful lot of emphasis is placed on Sophie Thompson's appearances as the frustrated rural diva Mrs Hardcastle, who is a showstopper of a matron. Like waiting for Mrs Slocombe to appear in Are You Being Served?, it's hard to care about the rest of the action when she's not on stage. Thompson's la-di-da pronunciation veers between Ireland and Paris with a flicker of mid-period Mrs Thatcher thrown in. "Tis the far-shion," she confides to a bemused Marlow, fittingly for a woman with what Mr Hardcastle (Steve Pemberton) would call a "superfluity of silk" around her person.
As Tony Lumpkin, the amiable waster on whose exact age the nifty plot resolution turns, David Fynn excels, stroking a rigidly dead rabbit to spook the urban visitors, chewing on a chicken bone in the drawing room and generally behaving badly, while being a thoroughly good egg. Alas, this part, which should be a comic foil to the more stuck-up characters, gets a bit lost when everyone else has their foot on the accelerator.