Oliver Goldsmith was not reputed to be a great conversationalist. Dr Johnson remarked that “the misfortune of Goldsmith in conversation is this, he goes on without knowing how he is to get off.” Surrounded by the great talkers of the age, ‘Noll’, with his fondness for fine things and his funny, sunken face, tended to gabble and was the subject of mockery and affection in equal measure.
Marlow, the dandyish protagonist of Goldsmith’s frothy 1773 comedy, is also socially ill at ease, at least in certain circumstances. Presented with a woman of fortune, his tongue ties itself in knots and he becomes so overcome he can barely bring himself to look her in the face; show him a comely barmaid however and he turns into Blackadder’s Flashheart in a lemon yellow frock coat, all thrust and trouser. So in order to snag her prize (or at the very least have him look at her), Kate Hardcastle, the daughter of a country squire, decides to adopt a broad accent, an apron and a playful manner, something she is only too happy to do.
Though he’s a keen observer of snobbery and pretension, Goldsmith’s play is intriguingly free of malice or cruelty, his satire soft-edged. The characters, though flawed, are all amiable in their way, and even the central misunderstanding, in which Marlow mistakes the Hardcastles’ home for a country inn and his potential father-in-law for its landlord, is the result of a mischievous rather than malicious prank. The humour comes as much at the expense of the town fops as the country folk and even Kate’s spoiled, layabout half-brother Tony Lumpkin is not a bad sort, not really.
The playing is by necessity pretty broad. There is little room for nuance here, but some lay it on thicker than others. Harry Hadden-Paton and John Heffernan make a sublime double act as Marlow and his friend Hastings, the two city interlopers. They give the impression of friendship – there’s a scene where the two are eating fruit where they spark wickedly off one another – and, Heffernan in particular, conveys a sense of basic decency and concern for Marlow’s happiness.
Steve Pemberton resists the urge to turn the eccentric Mr Hardcastle into a League of Gentlemen grotesque and is instead genial and (mostly) good-humoured in the role; this is in stark contrast to Sophie Thompson’s performance as Mrs Hardcastle, which is so far over the top that the top is now just a little speck in the field below. She is less a character than a collage of Tourettian facial tics and extravagant vowel-mangling in attempt to demonstrate to her guests that she is not just another one of the ‘rustics.’ Katherine Kelly takes a far more naturalistic approach as Kate, suggesting that her ‘barmaid’ persona is an existing facet of her character and, as a result, lessening the sense of deception in her behaviour. The production also sidesteps the slightly murky aspect of Marlow’s thirst for women lower down the social ladder than he.
These fluctuations of tone and pitch eventually start to have an effect on Jamie Lloyd’s production, which feels less cohesive than it might, but what it lacks in tightness and lightness it makes up for in occasional joyous flourishes, in well-staged musical interludes, in the interplay between Hadden-Paton and Heffernan (there can be few actors who can milk as much as he from a single utterance of the word ‘booby’) and in its abiding sense of generosity and warmth.