“But this is overacting, young gentleman,” protests Mr Hardcastle to his daughter’s suitor. It draws a huge laugh in the Olivier Theatre, largely because everyone has been overacting – in the nicest possible way – for the previous two hours. Jamie Lloyd’s twinkly, high-spirited production of Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy is played with lip-smacking relish. He rightly deduces that there is not much point being earnest about a plot in which two gentlemen of fashion are fooled into mistaking a private house for an inn and misbehave accordingly. Instead Lloyd and his cast deliver it with plenty of topspin and a pinch of Hogarth. This is a play, after all, about pretence, in which the characters spend much of the time talking to the audience in asides and in which people rejoice in names such as Mrs Oddfish and Colonel Wallop.
But while Lloyd laces it all with sight gags, chirruping servants and even the occasional wink, the tone is affectionate and the production finds the sincerity in the play. The stakes, to those concerned, seem high. Here’s Marlow, whose attitude towards women is so contorted that he can flirt with a maid but only stutter before her mistress. Here’s Kate Hardcastle, whose father wants to marry her off to this specimen. Here’s Mr Hardcastle, who likes the sound of his own voice; Mrs Hardcastle, desperate to impress; and her lumpish son Tony, who plays the prank that throws them all into disarray. Goldsmith guys the snobbery, hypocrisy and class tensions of his day without cruelty: this is above all a generous comedy.
On Mark Thompson’s handsome country house set, the cast totter through the turmoil in wigs, frocks and frock-coats. Harry Hadden-Paton is a comic joy as the conflicted Marlow, one moment curling his lip and flinging orders and orange peel around, the next quaking like the “shaking pudding” that is on the menu. John Heffernan brings lovely comic timing to his better adjusted friend, Hastings. Katherine Kelly plays Kate with the right mix of archness and innocence and Cush Jumbo brings lovely vivacity to Constance, Hastings’ girl. Sophie Thompson, meanwhile, turns Mrs Hardcastle into an extraordinary comic creation, with whom every conversation is a minefield of mangled vowels and garbled sense. The flaw in the production is that it works too hard, belabouring the fun in places so that a degree of romp fatigue sets in. But this is a droll evening of affectionate comedy.
Broadcast live to cinemas around the world on March 29