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A Laughing Matter
by Lizzie Loveridge

The hero Marlow is an idiot based upon myself. He mistakenly believes that he is staying at an inn and not the house of his father's oldest friend. There he tries to have his way with a barmaid. . . . she's really the daughter of the house disguised as a barmaid.
-- Oliver Goldsmith explaining the plot of She Stoops to Conquer
A Laughing Matter
Ian Redford as Dr Johnson and Jason Watkins as David Garrick (Photo: John Haynes)
April de Angelis' new play A Laughing Matter is a delight. Set in the eighteenth century among the acting profession and the coffee shops of Georgian London is a rich comedy of manners. Like Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good, which was designed to be played alongside, and with the same cast of actors as George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer, A Laughing Matter is twinned with a production of Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer.

Out of Joint has produced these two plays, directed by Max Stafford-Clark, jointly with the National Theatre. The new play centres on the relationship between the poet, novelist and dramatist, Oliver Goldsmith and the great actor and theatrical manager, David Garrick. The matter which brings these men head to head is Goldsmith's then controversial new play, a satirical comedy, She Stoops to Conquer.

Miss de Angelis' earlier play Playhouse Creatures looked at the predicament of actresses in the reign of Charles II. A Laughing Matter considers their situation after the introduction of the Lord Chamberlain's Office as granter of theatrical licences and censor in 1735. This resulted in only two London theatres, Drury Lane and Covent Garden, being licensed for plays. The problem is why David Garrick (Jason Watkins), an innovator and in charge of Drury Lane for thirty years, turned down the opportunity to stage Goldsmith's (Owen Sharpe) brilliant play, She Stoops to Conquer?

In A Laughing Matter there are matters of historical inaccuracy but does that really matter when we are dealing with drama? No-one seems upset at Shakespeare's rewriting of history to make a dramatic point or indeed at Michael Frayn's fictional supposition of what might have happened in Copenhagen, so why hammer Miss de Angelis for a stretch or two? If you want historical accuracy, go to the Public Records Office and look at original documents. Leave the rest of us, a play to enjoy! Having said that there are some matters with which dramatic licence has been taken, even so A Laughing Matter has much to tell us about the changes which David Garrick made to the theatre and to the acting profession and to acting style. The theatre printed programme has some excellent source material about the real lives of the eighteenth century figures who feature in the play.

A Laughing Matter centres on the decision in the 1770s whether to produce Goldsmith's new play, which was a satirical or laughing comedy, as opposed to the Reverend Richard Cumberland's sentimental or weeping comedy The Fashionable Lover. Whilst tracking the history of She Stoops to Conquer from page to stage, there is also a richly textured history of what theatrical changes Garrick made by flashbacks to early meetings of the actors' company in the 1740s and 1750s when he was a young actor.

The play also touches on the social conditions which led to abandoned babies or foundlings. All the great theatrical characters are there, the first great Shylock, Charles Macklin (Nigel Cooke, the notorious Mrs Cibber (Bella Merlin) and "breeches" actress, Peg Woffington (Monica Dolan).

A Laughing Matter is clever and full of wit, but with enough physical comedy for it not to be just word driven. Dr Johnson (Ian Redford) and his fellow members of the Turk's Head Club, all great men of the day, Goldsmith, Sir Joshua Reynolds (Nigel Cooke), James Boswell (Christopher Staines), Edmund Burke (Stephen Beresford) exchange the most polished of dialogue and observations. Johnson's vocabulary of course is splendid as he quotes his famous dictionary. A scene set in the theatre during a play introduces patronage and an unruly audience "untamed mob" in scenes more farcical than satirical. There are lots of in-jokes for theatre people.

Jason Watkins, a hit in A Servant to Two Masters, rules the roost as Garrick. A chirpy chappy, he has great charm as the actor-manager. This is very much his play. Owen Sharpe, as the stuttering with "something moving in his wig" Ollie Goldsmith is endearingly hapless. In the first scene we are told of the impoverished author that "he ate his candle and then lay in the darkness knowing his final hour must be approaching." Ian Redford, a trembling Dr Johnson, is massively entertaining with his ponderous manner and dry sense of humour. "Oats in England, sir, are a cereal fed to horses. In Scotland they support the population . . . . conversation has not yet been invented in Scotland. They are too busy chewing." I liked Monica Dolan's feisty Peg Woffington, mistress to a younger Garrick who resents sharing her with other "patrons".

Max Stafford-Clark directs the production with pace and panache. The sets are skilful and period. Costumes and wigs are authentic and differentiate well so that it is as though the cast is three times its number. I loved the child actor with his knees in his boots. With excellent ensemble performances, A Laughing Matter is a delicious evening which I have no hesitation in recommending.

A Laughing Matter
Written by April de Angelis
Directed by Max Stafford-Clark

Starring: Jason Watkins
With: Stephen Beresford, Nigel Cooke, Monica Dolan, Fritha Goodey, Bella Merlin, Ian Redford, Owen Sharpe, Matthew Sim, Christopher Staines, Jane Wood.
Designer: Julian McGowan
Lighting Designer: Johanna Town
Music: Paddy Cunneen
Choreographer: Wendy Allnutt
Sound: Neil Alexander
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 29th March 2003
On tour to Exeter, Cambridge, Liverpool, Bath, and Northampton.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 17th December 2002 Performance at the Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Tube Station: Waterloo)
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