She Stoops To Conquer – April 2008

7/10

By Oliver Goldsmith, additional material by Bryony Lavery

Directed by Jonathan Munby

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Wednesday 2nd April 2008

This was a superb production of this play, with some hugely entertaining updates and a very good cast. To start with, there were three musicians playing on the stage when we entered the auditorium. Dressed in period gear, they were playing a sit-down drum, a violin and a stringed instrument. It was very pleasant. There were also two ushers at the bottom of each aisle and a stage curtain with the name of the play on it.

The musicians finished their set, and then the two ushers started arguing. Apparently the woman wanted the man to go out with her that evening, and he was reluctant. It took me a moment or two to realise these were the two leads, and by this time they were on the stage, and had launched into an updated version of the prologue. During this, the man scarpered, leaving the woman to finish off by asking for a method to teach this guy to be more affectionate towards her in public. Up goes the curtain, and she’s off to get changed.

The set was unusual. It had the requisite three walls and various doors, but the floor was curved, as if the floorboards had sagged over the years. It was also raked back to front, so it must have taken some getting used to. Anyway, we start off by getting to see Mr and Mrs Hardcastle at some meal, possibly breakfast. Colin Baker and Liza Goddard gave us a very good husband and wife. This was obviously a second marriage by a social climber who lost no opportunity to remind everyone of her first husband, Squire Lumpkin. Her affectations were prominent, as were her intentions of keeping her niece’s jewels in the family by marrying her off to her son, Tony Lumpkin, whose age is being kept a secret. Mr Hardcastle is a kindly gentleman, with a bit of a temper at times, but more of the cuddly sort than otherwise. I remember seeing Tom Baker playing him years ago, and choosing to leap around in a very odd way. This was a much more believable performance.

The plots are being set up nicely. The usherette turns up, in a lovely green frock (the couples were colour-coded), and we get a moment of her admiring the gown she’s  wearing before the character of Kate Hardcastle takes over, and she and her father are explaining the situation. She wears what she likes during the day, but dresses more plainly in the evening, to please him. From here on, it’s a jolly romp through all the misunderstandings and manners of the period. Tony Lumpkin misleads the suitors into thinking they’re at an inn when in fact they’ve arrived at their destination, and the confusion gives us some lovely scenes.

I particularly liked the first conversation between Kate and Marlow. She was intelligent and lively, while he was hugely embarrassed and almost incoherent at times. In fact, it’s surprising how well he does manage, although she does help him a lot once they’re left alone. Both of these performances were excellent, and for once I found it believable (just) for a man to be so brash and arrogant with those he considers his inferiors, and so tongue-tied when a posh bird comes along.

I also liked the scene in the garden. Trees were lowered down to create the setting very effectively, and Mrs Hardcastle, all mired with mud and her dress in tatters, was wonderfully funny. Later she tries to use her fan, realises it’s falling to bits, and closes it again with a grimace. Beautifully done.

Jonathan Broadbent as Tony Lumpkin was the best I’ve seen in this role. He’s not so much stupid as uneducated and high-spirited, with a native cunning that will probably get him through life without too much difficulty. He may have caused a lot of the problems that the various couples face, but he’s quick to sort things out when he learns that he is of age by renouncing his cousin immediately, and letting her marry the man of her choice and keep her jewels.

There was a dance to start the second half, one much loathed by the company apparently. I enjoyed it, though others in the audience weren’t sure what it was about. I reckoned it was a kind of reprise of the action so far. At the end of the play, we were treated to another dance, and then an updated epilogue, with some entertaining references. All ends happily, as the bashful usher arrives with some large sheets of card to save him having to speak his words of love out loud. Ah.

All the performances were to the same high standard, and it made for a very enjoyable evening. The director had decided to add the musicians, and they contribute a lot throughout the play, especially when covering the scene changes as well as livening up the tavern scene. The lines came across very clearly, and the dialogue seemed very fresh for once. At the post show I asked if they had cut it much, but apparently they had only dropped a few obscure references. The freshness must have been down to the standard of the production, which was definitely the best I’ve seen of this play.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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