Greedy Matron Frolics, Cavalier Swaggers, Mozart: London Stage

John Heffernan, center, and ensemble in "She Stoops to Conquer" by Oliver Goldsmith, at the National Theatre in London. The plot turns on a set of mistaken identities. Photographer: Johan Persson/National Theatre via Bloomberg

Comedies are like Eurozone crises. You wait ages for one, and then three turn up at once.

Topping the list of cheer-uppers in London is a new National Theatre production of “She Stoops to Conquer,” Oliver Goldsmith’s mistaken-identity romp of 1773. Sophie Thompson, playing a rapacious over-protective mother, adds another dazzler to her gallery of comic creations. (She garnered great notices last year playing two wildly different roles in “Clybourne Park.”)

Here she’s Mrs. Hardcastle, a provincial matron whose character is equal parts good-nature and greed. She’s anxious that her son Tony should marry his cousin Constance for a dowry of jewels, even though the two loathe each other.

Thompson’s asides are beautifully timed, her energy is phenomenal, her physical gags -- including a low dignified curtsey from which she can’t quite manage to rise --delicious. Her attempt at aping fashionable London manners ends up in a scene with upper class, rural and cockney accents all mangled into one, along with a dash of something that sounds like Jamaican patois.

For all the caricature exaggeration, Thompson holds on to a core of reality. When she bursts out with “Wasn’t it all for your good?” to her doltish son, a chilling note of fear and anger creeps into her voice.

Blustery Spouse

She’s matched by Steve Pemberton (from the television series “The League of Gentlemen”) as her blustery husband. Harry Hadden-Paton is terrific too as Marlow, who is a boisterous pup before working-class women and becomes timid when confronted with ladies of quality. His lechery contains a seductive quality of both silliness and innocence.

A few other leads aren’t up to this mark, and don’t bring the same high energy to their parts. There are also some jangly musical interludes that jar stylistically with the 18th-century setting and are performed by a troupe of servants with unnecessary roughness.

That said, director Jamie Lloyd keeps the comedy levels high, and his period-costume production looks great. Designer Mark Thompson’s recreation of an oak-paneled manor house makes you want to go and stay in it.

The Olivier Awards are coming around soon. If I were a betting man, I’d say Thompson is up for her fifth nomination, and even her second win. Rating: ***.

‘Der Rosenkavalier’

It’s fun to see great actors throwing looks to each other as they do at the National Theatre. Add some superb singing, and more 18th-century costumes, and you have operatic heaven.

English National Opera’s “Der Rosenkavalier” is a delight. Mezzo Sarah Connolly is Octavian, the dashing cavalier of the title. With her youthful swagger and luxurious voice, she commands the stage. John Tomlinson is Baron Ochs, a self-important bully and Octavian’s rival in love. His boomy voice and gift for comic gesture are employed to amusing ends, while conductor Edward Gardner holds it all together.

If Amanda Roocroft (the Marschallin) doesn’t quite have as caressing a voice as her colleagues, her acting is as nuanced and detailed.

David McVicar’s period-costume production has its drawbacks. A single, decrepit rococo set has to serve for all three acts. It looks odd as the setting for the nouveau-riche Faninal family home.

Never mind. When this large-scale Richard Strauss opera comes alive with all the conversational elegance and wit that it does here, it’s still a wonder. Rating: ***.

Cool Fun

Tomlinson isn’t the only singer who can cut a comic caper. Baritone Thomas Allen, too, shows how it should be done as Don Alfonso in Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” at the Royal Opera. The production marks his 40th year with the company.

How does he keep this Machiavellian character fresh, amusing and cool? By having a sense of fun and pleasure in game playing, lurking under the coldhearted calculation. He skips with glee, and preens delight when his plans work out. He wittily mocks his victims over their sentimentality.

Allen is as hypnotic as a snake, and sings with suave assurance. It’s just as well, because the rest of the cast can’t hold a candle to him. There are some attractive voices, yet no one creates the same dramatic buzz, the same sense of a lived-in character as Allen. In Jonathan Miller’s minimalist modern-dress staging, it adds up to an evening of longueurs, punctuated by sizzling flashes of baritonal joy. Rating: **.

“She Stoops to Conquer” is in repertory at the National Theatre. Information: or 44-20-7452-3000.

“Der Rosenkavalier” is in repertory at the Coliseum through Feb. 27. Information: or 44-871-911-0200.

“Cosi fan tutte” is at the Royal Opera until Feb. 13. Information: or +44-20-7304-4000.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless
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