April de Angelis's new play is the first example of wholesale sampling that I've ever seen at the theatre. There are some good lines in it - as there should be, considering most of them are written by Shakespeare, Jonson, Johnson and Goldsmith. However, this is much more than a collection of other writers' material. There are some very funny moments, and it requires considerable dramatic ability to pull all the disparate threads together. And, to be fair, De Angelis has also added several good lines of her own.
A Laughing Matter, which plays in repertory with the 18th-century She Stoops to Conquer, tells of Oliver Goldsmith's struggles to get his masterpiece performed. Based on real events and peopled by historical characters, it looks behind the scenes at David Garrick's last season as actor-manager of Drury Lane theatre, when he decides against She Stoops in favour of a long forgotten "weeping comedy".
The trouble is that De Angelis can't really decide what sort of play she'd like to produce. Is it about the nature of art, about whether public approbation is more meaningful than long-lasting achievement? Is it about the actor's role in society, whether an actor can truly be a gentleman? As if this heady mixture weren't enough, the play transforms itself into a frenetic farce as we go backstage for the first night of Goldsmith's comedy.
And there are moments when the author simply can't resist over-egging the pudding. The idea that Garrick would reject the Goldsmith play because of some well-timed blackmail from his prudish assistant Hannah More is unnecessary - the conclusion being that Garrick will always put public goodwill, and thus profit, above art - opting for a happy ending for Lear over the true version, while knowing that the latter is the more powerful drama.
Director Max Stafford-Clark's touch makes sure that the whole evening doesn't fall apart. He's aided by some good performances. Perhaps most outstanding amongst them is Jason Watkins as the conflicted Garrick. In one critical scene, by the briefest glance, he gives weight to our suspicions about the true parenthood of the foundling actor (well portrayed by Stephen Beresford): it's a moment that's under-played with great skill.
Ian Redford's Dr Johnson is also strong, his lip-smacking relish aided by many of the best lines. All round, in fact, this is an excellent Out of Joint cast, most of them playing multiple parts and handling the differing demands of the text with the greatest ease. One suspects that they particularly enjoyed the actor in-jokes revolving around play-readings and parts for messengers.
A Laughing Matter might be a flawed play, but it's a fascinating one all the same and a delicious complement to She Stoops.
- Maxwell Cooter (reviewed at the NT Lyttelton)