It is just possible that while rehearsing She Stoops To Conquer over the festive period, director Jamie Lloyd discovered how to distil pure pleasure and place it on a stage.
The key to this trick of theatrical sorcery, as far as I can tell, is to present Olivier Award-winning actress Sophie Thompson with the opportunity to release all of her energies into a gurning, unhinged caricature of a mother with her own put on accent that travels round the world faster than Phileas Fog could ever have imagined.
Thompson is dream casting in the role of Mrs Hardcastle, a matriarch whose matchmaking leaves a lot to be desired. She revels in her character’s pretensions and absurdity. As she does so, the fun she has radiates through the Olivier theatre’s gaping auditorium.
Though Thompson, like some kind of theatrical kleptomaniac, steals every scene in which she appears, this is not Mrs Hardcastle’s story.
Goldsmith’s comedy is, in fact, the tale of her daughter Kate – played by former Coronation Street star Katherine Kelly, making her return to the stage – who hopes to bring her shy suitor out of his shell by dropping her airs and graces, and pretending to be a barmaid. He is an entirely different man around women of a different class, you see.
Why should a barmaid be loitering in the house of the gentleman, Mr Hardcastle? That conceit would be explained by the cheeky plot put into action by Kate’s loveable lout of a brother, who is not particularly fond of Londonders straying into his rural whereabouts.
It is a silly plot that should not be examined too closely for fear of finding the flaws, but under Lloyd’s guidance its characters are nothing if not endearing. Harry Hadden-Paton at times channels Rik Mayall at his most reptilian while playing the wooing Marlow, but reveals a sweet nervousness when faced with the real Kate and a sympathetic remorse when the plot is unravelled. John Heffernan is delightfully lovelorn as his sidekick Hastings, while Kelly is a shrewd Kate, unafraid to master her own destiny.
Together their performances elicit a warmth and a smile, augmented by musical interludes and Mark Thomspon’s impressive set, which is dominated by a roaring fire. But every alchemist needs a secret ingredient, the spark that ignites the spell. On the Olivier stage, Thompson makes the magic happen.