A Laughing Matter

Thursday, 19 December, 2002
Review by: 
Alan Bird

The National Theatre and Out of Joint’s co-production of April De Angelis’s “A Laughing Matter “ is running in repertoire with Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer”, both plays directed by Max Stafford-Clark and performed by the same cast.

David Garrick was one of the most influential theatrical directors of the last four centuries. There is much about the modern theatre experience that can be traced to his radical, and at the time, controversial theatrical reforms. He banished spectators from the stage, enforced proper rehearsals and fined leading actors of the company who failed to attend them. Garrick championed Shakespeare and placed the bard at the centre point of his theatrical revival.

As an actor he was willing to express a depth of emotion which many originally considered unseemly. He addressed his lines to the other actors on stage rather than to the audience and he would respond to what the other characters said and did, as one astonished critic said, “He acts even when he’s not acting.” However, through Garrick was an innovator, he could not avoid the censoring arm of the Lord Chamberlain. This fact, and the growing popularity of Colman at the Covent Garden were two of the determining factors that caused Garrick to refuse one of the only original worthwhile new plays of the period. “She Stoops to Conquer”.

A Laughing Matter deduces why Garrick turned down Goldsmith’s play “She Stoops to Conquer”. April De Angelis cleverly weaves together the known facts to create a semi-fictional account of how Garrick could have made such a climacteric error of judgement.

The play contains some marvellous comic characterisations such as the smug cynical Dr Johnson and the prudish conceited Rev Cumberland both played to perfection by Ian Redford. As Dr Johnson, Redford lambastes his friends and colleagues with his wit and superior intellect but as Rev Cumberland he creeps around the stage as the mousey cleric, come playwright, who hides behind the skirt of his sponsor Lady Kingston. A spellbinding performance!

Owen Sharpe delightfully portrays the buffoon Oliver Goldsmith; the ridiculously looking Irish playwright whom is reduced to eating his candles due to hunger. Even as he pontificates on the state of the theatre his burlesque mannerisms show through. Jane Wood plays the feisty Lady Kingston with indomitable high spirits, she especially excels in the second act when the play turns to farce and she makes sexual overtures to an actor whom she mistakes for Garrick.

The star of the show though is Jason Watkins as Garrick. He dominates the stage, whether posing in postures of creative genius as visitors enter his room, deliberately hamming Shakespeare to please his vulgar guests or striving to restore respectability to theatre and to the occupation of acting.

April De Angelis has written a witty and insightful comedy into the life of British theatre in the 18th century and how one man Garrick, began the work that restored theatre to the centre of British cultural life and made acting a respectable profession. My one complaint is when the play degenerates into French farce, which diverts from the intriguing picture which had been so amusingly sketched of British 18th century cultural life.

What other critics had to say.....

BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "De Angelis’s writing is even funnier than it is stimulating." CHARLES SPENCER for DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "The play never quite achieves lift off." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GAURDIAN says, "A lively production of a historically dubious play." KATE BASSETT for THE INDEPENDENT says, " A Laughing Matter does both entertain and educate."

External links to full reviews from popular press

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