Directing your first classic English 18th century comedy in the unforgivingly vast surroundings of the Olivier theatre is a high hurdle to jump for a young director like Jamie Lloyd; and it's not made any easier when bloggers like me come along to a very early preview and start to pick holes in a production that hasn't quite got into top gear.
Lloyd, who has risen to prominence directing plays in the much smaller spaces of the Donmar and the Royal Court, rises to the challenge of the Olivier by sensibly framing most of the action in a defined space at the centre of the stage which serves as the drawing room of Squire Hardcastle's home, complete with burning log fire. It's beautifully designed and costumed by Mark Thompson, and the acting at its best is excellent. John Heffernan, whom I saw last year as an unforgettable Richard II in Bristol, oozes languid 18th century charm in the supporting role of Hastings, and is well partnered by Cush Jumbo as Constance. Katherine Kelly is superb as Kate Hardcastle, delivering a masterclass in sly high comedy and timing. She plays Kate not as a country ingenue but a mature and quite sophisticated woman who knows exactly what she wants. Overall, however, there are too many variations in style, with some cast members like Sophie Thompson (Mrs Hardcastle) overplaying the comic effects and others too restrained. Harry Hadden-Paton, despite his experience as a rioting toff in Laura Wade's Posh, doesn't quite convince as Marlow, the young upper-class twerp whose brazen confidence in seducing serving wenches evaporates into shyness when he meets a girl of his own class. I much preferred his performance in Jessica Swale's excellent production of The Rivals at Southwark Playhouse in 2010. In the scene where he meets the lovely Kate for the first time and is tongue-tied in embarrassment, Hadden-Paton makes Marlow such an imbecile that it is hard to see why Kate should actually fancy him. When she swaps her clothes and pretends to be a barmaid, he again overplays the swaggering seducer. Kate remains in character as herself, even when dissembling, while Marlow I and Marlow II seem to be different people altogether. Good comedy flows naturally from convincing characters, and this production is too eager to find the audience's funnybone without giving the characters time to develop. David Fynn as Tony Lumpkin is by contrast a little too restrained (I started to wonder what James Corden might have made of this part) and doesn't quite get across his character's essential feature -- that his little grey cells tick over more slowly than those of everyone else on stage. He should be a beat behind everyone else. Lumpkin thinks he's clever but he's actually extremely dim, as he proves when he hands over to his mother a letter which he can't read himself, thus giving away the elopment plan of Hastings and Constance.
The best scenes in this production are very good, but overall the production isn't helped by its thumpety-thump musical score and ho-ho-ho dance interludes, all of which are designed to tell us we're watching a comedy. It's the unnecessary equivalent of holding up a sign saying LAUGH NOW. In fact this is the sort of play where it's quite safe to postpone the business of getting laughs until the play has got into its stride. I think it's safe to say that with a few more performances, the show will tighten up and the comedy will start to flow more naturally as the talented cast gain confidence.