The greatest joy of Lotte Wakeham’s production of Howard Goodall’s and Charles Hart’s musical The Kissing-Dance is how beautifully she and Musical Director Tom Attwood make the actor-musician concept work. It gives the show a real sense of music being in every corner.
Based on Oliver Goldsmith’s eighteenth-century sentimental comedy She Stoops To Conquer, Goodall and Hart wrote the piece for the National Youth Music Theatre in in 1999 and this first professional production has leading lady Gina Beck reprising her role as Miss Kate Hardcastle. The operetta-like feel has some echoes of a younger A Little Night Music without the ‘knives in the whipped cream.’ There’s lots of moonlit madness in a country house, some complex harmonies and romantic near misses that come right in the end.
Whilst sharing the wordiness of Gilbert and Sullivan and the innocence of Salad Days (apart from some very jarring profanity), the music doesn’t come close to its influences in terms of developing a distinctive character. There are some delightful moments in the score, particularly Kate’s solo Miss Hardcastle’s Wedding, but a considerable amount of the music is as insipid as Goodall’s (in this reviewer’s opinion) dreadful Love Story and many of Hart’s lyrics are wincingly fussy when they should be fluently witty.
The transition from the eighteenth century to the Edwardian era is a sensible one. As well as being distancing, elaborate eighteenth-century style gowns and wigs aren’t easy to move in and would be a tight squeeze on the Jermyn Street stage. Samal Blak’s magnolia-coloured set is elegantly simple and Karen Frances’s costumes suitably charming. The action takes place on All Fool’s Eve, a night when anything goes, fitting in nicely with this period in which children have very different ideas to their parents as to what the future holds.
The lady of the house, Mrs Dorothy Hardcastle (a role made her own by a young Sheridan Smith, and now in the capable clutches of redoubtable character actress Beverley Klein) wants her spoiled son by her first marriage Tony Lumpkin (Jack Shalloo, who plays his character’s delinquencies purely for laughs) safely married off to his cousin Constance, a young lady in possession of an impressive collection of jewels. Lumpkin, however, prefers the company of blowsy barmaid Bet Bouncer (a rambunctious Lauren Storer in a very ill-fitting dress) and Constance’s heart is given elsewhere. The entire house is in uproar when the jewels go missing, particularly as two young gentlemen from London (who seem to think that the house is an inn) have turned up unexpectedly.
Kate Hardcastle, she who stoops to conquer, is both compliant and subversive, keen to fall in love with the man whom her father has chosen for her whilst taking the risk of transforming herself into a lowly serving maid when discovering that her intended (Ian Virgo, who created the role of Tony Lumpkin) is perfectly at home with wenches, but tongue-tied in front of ladies. Unfortunately, we never really get a sense of why she’s so smitten by this rather smarmy character. Gina Beck has a lovely mixture of archness and wistfulness as well as a gleaming soprano and the sisterly relationship between her and Constance (Gemma Sutton) is touchingly played.
It’s hard to imagine The Kissing-Dance making a stir in the West End. However, in the sympathetic intimacy of Jermyn Street, this is an accomplished boutique production that’s presented and performed with enough warmth and sprightly charm to win over a cynic or two.