Though the West End stay of musical Love Story was sadly curtailed, Jermyn Street theatre offers another chance to catch the work of composer Howard Goodall with its production of his The Kissing-Dance.
Goodall teamed up with lyricist Charles Hart – he of The Phantom Of The Opera – to write this piece for the National Youth Music Theatre in 1998. The duo has reworked it for this first professional production, which is staged in boutique fashion by a cast of actor-musicians.
The plot is based on Oliver Goldsmith’s 18th century comedy She Stoops To Conquer – transplanted in director Lotte Wakeham’s production to the Edwardian era – a story of class snobbery, feminine wiles and mistaken identity. Mr and Mrs Hardcastle have invited the son of an old friend, Charles Marlow, to their country estate with the intention of pairing him off with their daughter, Kate. Accompanying him is his friend George Hastings, who happens to be the secret beau of Kate’s cousin Constance, who in turn is on an enforced promise to Kate’s half-witted half-brother Tony Lumpkin. However, the mischievous intervention of Lumpkin results in the pair of visitors thinking the Hardcastle’s estate is actually a country inn, and Mr Hardcastle – whom they have never met – is the inn keeper. Mistakes and misunderstandings swiftly ensue.
This is just one element of the many comments on class within the story. As well as treating ‘inn-keeper’ Mr Hardcastle with brazen disdain, Marlow has a personality split when it comes to women: with working-class girls he is an arrogant ladies man, while with high-born women he is paralysed by shyness, unable to stutter a word. It is left to the self-possessed Kate and Constance to design a plot to ensure things work out in their favour, which involves Kate ‘stooping’ to the level of a servant girl to snare her man.
At heart, this is quite a disturbing tale – why Hardcastle would still want Marlow for his daughter when he can see how he treats people is difficult to fathom – however Goodall and Hart’s humour glosses over any darkness in the story. The cast play up to the witty, tongue-in-cheek book and lyrics – which include a smattering of double-entendres based around the name Dick Hardcastle – while Goodall’s pretty, sweet melodies boost, rather than slow down, the fast-paced plot. An energetic scene in the pub where Lumpkin inflicts his meddling on the two suitors is particularly effective.
A uniformly fine cast includes West End regulars David Burt and Beverley Klein as the proud Mr Hardcastle and his snobby, materialistic wife. Gina Beck and Gemma Sutton bring substance and humour to the canny characters of Kate and Constance, while Ian Virgo and Dylan Turner are effective as their male counterparts. But this is a real ensemble piece, made more so by the integration of the music with the acting; kudos must go to Lila Clements for playing clarinet, singing and keeping up with the choreography all in one song.
This may not be the West End, but little Jermyn Street theatre has provided a fine platform for a Goodall & Hart musical which deserves to be seen.