Oliver Goldsmith’s famous 18th century prose comedy is more honoured on the page than on the stage these days, but Jamie Lloyd’s debut production at the National is the best in a long while and gives off the warm fireside glow of another solid South Bank hit.
She Stoops, or The Mistakes of a Night, is played in real time: two posh town blades, Marlow and Hastings, arrive in a country house they have been tricked into thinking is an inn. They throw orange peel on the floor, trample over the furniture and order their host to bring them a dinner menu. What larks.
Marlow has been consigned by his father (the host’s old friend) as a fiancé to the daughter of the house, Kate Hardcastle, and Hastings is besotted with her cousin Constance.
There are stumbling blocks: Marlow can only talk to servants, and freezes in stuttering embarrassment with girls from his own class. Hastings has been thwarted in pursuit of Constance by old Mrs Hardcastle, who wants to hang on to her jewel casket by matching Constance with her own booby-ish, slightly dissolute but good-natured son, Tony Lumpkin.
The action moves smoothly on the Oliver revolve, and Mark Thompson’s set, from the country house to the ale-house and the misty exterior on Crackskull Common (in fact, the bottom of the garden), linked with boisterous scat singing by all the cast of some very appealing music by Ben and Max Ringham.
Lloyd makes no bones about bathing it all in Neil Austin’s orange, mellow lighting. But his trump card is in the casting of Harry Hadden-Paton as Marlow, a performance of quite unusual technical assurance, sincerity, skill and outstanding comic flair.
He twists into a ribbon of dumb helplessness in his interview with Katherine Kelly’s beautifully poised Kate; then finds his inner animal, pawing the ground and shaking his fetlocks when Kate comes on to him as the lubricious “barmaid.”
And he is perfectly partnered by John Heffernan’s hilarious, willowy Hastings, a soft-hearted accomplice who fouls up badly and pleads the torture of his situation as his only excuse. Ah, bless. Hastings’ campaign to win Cush Jumbo’s pretty and likeable Constance is in effect prosecuted by his supposed rival, the gloriously free-spirited Lumpkin of David Fynn, the cog in the wheel, the festive sprite.
The senior Hardcastles are uproariously done by Steve Pemberton and Sophie Thompson, the latter playing the grotesquerie of her pretentions with an alarming mixture of savage excess and steely precision. She even gets away with the old gag of sinking to the floor in a curtsy and creaking back upwards with great difficulty, twice, and tops that by extracting not one, but two, two exit “rounds.”
It all looks lovely and traditional while making you realise that much of the comedy deals in dislocation and deceit. The band strikes up, the flower petals descend in a gentle storm, the actors go into their dance once more, the audience smiles and claps… Whatever happened to Brecht? Who, for the minute, cares?