She Stoops To Conquer – February 2012

10/10

By Oliver Goldsmith

Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 8th February 2012

This was a fabulous production which brought out all the humour in this classic comedy brilliantly. The cast did an excellent job, and the set and costumes set it all off perfectly.

The set first. Across the middle of the stage stretched a wall, suitable for the inside of an old manor house which looks like an inn. The fireplace in the centre was about twelve feet tall, and you could have roasted a couple of pigs in it no bother. The room had pictures on the wall, tables with fruit and drink, a sofa, an upholstered bench and a comfortable leather armchair. There was a large rug in the middle of the floor, another chair to the front and right, and a rustic chandelier hung from the non-existent ceiling. A door at either end of the wall allowed the characters on and off. Behind this wall we could see tree trunks but no greenery, and when we arrived there was plenty of birdsong to tell us we were in the country. At the start of each half we also heard some mooing and clucking, just to be sure we got the point.

For the scene in the inn, the revolve showed us the other side of the wall, which was a pretty basic country inn – wood panelling, window, couple of entrances – and there were tables and chairs for the customers. Strangely, there were also two tree trunks, one on either side of the stage, which appeared to be growing through the inn. Puzzling; I reckon it may be one of young Tony Lumpkin’s practical jokes.

The scene later in the garden was a lovely transformation. The revolve took the furniture to the back of the stage while the wall sank down to vanish completely. Assorted tree trunks were lowered into place, and with a squirt of mist and some atmospheric lighting we were in the perfect setting for either a dangerous isolated spot where robbers might pounce at any minute, or the (large) back garden of Mr Hardcastle’s residence.

The scene changes were covered by music from the cast, right from the start. They didn’t sing songs as such, just la-la-la and ba-ba-ba and suchlike, all very lively and enjoyable. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but when it came to the bigger scene changes, especially setting up the garden, I realised it was essential to do something to cover the hiatus. And if you’re going to do it then, you’d better get the audience used to it early on. So all in all I’m fine with that choice.

The costumes were splendid and totally in period from what I could tell – the National is usually reliable in these matters – and there were plenty of servants in this household, not to mention plenty of customers at the inn. The performances of the supporting actors were excellent with lots of good reactions helping the humour, especially in the scene where Mr Hardcastle tried to teach his servants how to behave in front of company. I loved the way they all tried not to laugh when one of them mentioned Mr Hardcastle’s funniest tale (old Grouse in the gun-room) but failed, and ended up roaring with laughter – his servants clearly loved his stories.

The plot has a lot of information to get across, and the clarity of the lines was tremendous. I know the story of old, but I found myself hearing more of the dialogue than before, and the way Sophie Thompson as Mrs Hardcastle emphasised the relevant bits for us was very helpful, and very funny. I suspect no one missed the crucial information that the manor house looked like an inn, wink, wink.

The play opened with singing from the servants, who appeared in a group at each doorway. Mr and Mrs Hardcastle came on for the first scene and got us off to a good start, with some funny descriptions of their neighbours as well as the info about the house (see above). When Tony Lumpkin came on, he was eating a chicken drumstick and used it to prepare himself for his night out, rubbing it on various intimate areas to transfer the scent. What put a lot of the audience off was that he then carried on eating it! His exit was very funny; Mrs Hardcastle was so desperate for him to stay with them that evening that she clung on to him and was dragged off stage, sliding across the floor behind him and out of the door which the servants helpfully held open.

Then we had a scene between Mr Hardcastle and his daughter, Kate, telling us about their arrangement whereby she’ll be wearing ordinary clothes instead of her finery later on that evening. I was struck by a stray thought at the start of this scene; when I heard Mr Hardcastle refer to his daughter as Kate, I immediately thought of The Taming of the Shrew. We’d seen the play recently at Stratford, and it occurred to me that this play was a kind of mirror image of that one. Instead of Kate being a shrew and Mr Marlowe a brawling sort of chap, this Kate is self-assured and very reasonable, while Marlowe is the strange character, bold with the lower class women he meets, but hardly able to say a word to ladies of his own class. The analogy took my fancy, and I found myself looking for further evidence during the performance; it didn’t spoil my enjoyment in any way, and although I have no knowledge of Oliver Goldsmith’s intentions in writing this piece, considering the similarities between the two plays has been an interesting process.

After Mr Hardcastle has told his daughter about the imminent arrival of Mr Marlowe, the son of his old friend, to be her suitor, and she and her step-mother’s niece, Miss Constance Neville, have informed us that Mr Marlowe is a close friend of Mr Hastings, Miss Neville’s intended, the scene changed to the inn, where Tony Lumpkin was enjoying himself with lots of beer. And then lots more beer. And then more beer. He sank a yard of the stuff and threw it up into a bucket. The company was lively, and then the two men we’d been hearing about, Mr Marlowe and Mr Hastings, arrived, looking for directions to Mr Hardcastle’s house. Their clothes and manners made them stand out immediately from the local rustics, and Mr Hardcastle’s comments about foppish London behaviour and excessive frippery were perfectly expressed by these two characters. Their costumes were splendid, and their discomfort at finding themselves amongst such rough company was very funny.

With Tony Lumpkin being unhappy about Mr Hardcastle’s attitude towards him, he decided to play a trick on these two. He told them they were too far out of their way to get Mr Hardcastle’s house that night, and then sent them off to the very place, telling them it was an inn they could stay at. He also provided them with a couple of mugs of ale, scooped from the bucket he’d just thrown up in.  They were given these mugs early on in the scene but didn’t drink any until the very end, when they took a swig each and paused before declaring the contents to be quite good. By that time the audience had got over its squeamishness, and had a good laugh at the well delayed joke.

The next scene was the very funny lesson Mr Hardcastle gave his servants, at the end of which he heard the coach arrive and went off to welcome his guests. Mr Hastings and Mr Marlowe entered, and in Mr Hardcastle’s absence we have plenty of time to learn about these two men. Mr Hastings was interested in seeing Miss Neville and running off with her if possible, while Mr Marlowe’s difficulties with the fair sex were expounded at length. When Mr Hardcastle returned, we started to reap the fruits of the earlier scene’s preparations, as Mr Hardcastle attempted to talk with his ‘guests’, while they talked to each other and ignored ‘the landlord’ as much as possible.

To show how relaxed the two men were at the ‘inn’, Hastings took some fruit from the bowl on the sideboard early on and threw the orange to Marlowe, keeping the apple for himself. Marlowe peeled this orange during their conversation, dropping the bits of peel on the floor, which certainly showed that he had no consideration for the place. Unfortunately, nothing more was done with this peel until the servants cleaned it up a couple of scenes later, so we had to put up with actors nearly treading on it and skirts sweeping bits of it around the stage with no pay off. It didn’t spoil my enjoyment, but it didn’t add anything either, and was a minor distraction.

Marlowe headed off to check his bedroom followed by Hardcastle, leaving Hastings alone on stage, but not for long. Miss Neville entered and Hastings was soon disabused of the notion that he was at an inn. When Marlowe returned, the couple arrange for him to meet Miss Hardcastle who at this point was still dressed as fine lady. Marlowe’s problems were not exaggerated; his difficulty in talking with Miss Hardcastle was extreme, and very funny for us. Hastings and Miss Neville stayed for a bit to egg him on, and then left Marlowe alone with Kate; Marlowe’s reaction to their leaving was another comic masterpiece.

The conversation between Marlowe and Kate was very good fun, with Marlowe never looking at her. She completed his sentences after a reasonable pause, and he left the room as soon as he decently could. Hastings and Miss Neville returned almost immediately, with Tony Lumpkin and Mrs Hardcastle. To keep her jewels in the family, Mrs Hardcastle has been working hard to get her son to marry Miss Neville, while she has been pretending to cooperate in order to get her hands on the jewels for herself. So in this scene, she cuddled up to a hostile Tony, while Hastings charmed Mrs Hardcastle. This was another example of Sophie Thompson’s excellent comedy performance. She managed to put on an almost unintelligible accent; we could tell she was trying to talk posh, and failing completely. Every so often she would lapse into her normal country accent, which was actually easier to follow, and Hastings complimented her on her taste and style as fulsomely as he could. When he was suggesting a new age which was the latest fashion in town, there was a lovely pause while he decided how far to go; his choice of “fifty” was very astute.

With Mrs Hardcastle and Constance out of the way, Hastings persuaded Tony Lumpkin to join in the elopement plan. I think the interval was taken after this scene, and then we restarted with another singing fest from the servants, which ended up with Mr Hardcastle standing in his own drawing room holding a pair of boots which Marlowe has given him to clean. When Kate arrived, now dressed much more simply, they discussed the man and have completely different points of view, naturally. Although they were both keen to reject him as a future husband for Kate, she was at least willing to give him another chance and her father agreed, while at the same time doubting that he’ll change his mind.

Tony had stolen Constance’s jewels from his mother, and gave them to Hastings. Unfortunately, unaware of this development, Constance was still trying to persuade her aunt to let her have the jewels, and when they come into the room, Tony suggested to his mother that she tell Constance the jewels have gone, been lost or whatever, to stop her asking for them. Mrs Hardcastle jumped at the chance to keep hold of the gems, and went along with this story. She did offer to let Constance have her garnets, though, which meant the theft of the other jewels was discovered earlier than anyone wanted. (Anyone that mattered, that is.) While Mrs Hardcastle wailed and shouted about the jewels actually being gone, Tony supported her in the ‘story’, winding her up even more.

As Kate prepared to meet Mr Marlowe on different terms, she had a short discussion with a couple of the servants (only one in the text). Kate was sure she could carry off the deception; the maids weren’t so convinced by her acting skills, but didn’t like to disagree and reassured her she’d be fine. Mind you, it took her some time to get Mr Marlowe to look at her at all. He was very preoccupied by his situation and determined to return to London the next day, and she was posing ever more provocatively to get him to notice her. Once he did, though, she had to move pretty fast to keep his hands off her, but didn’t quite manage it. Just as Marlowe was about to take advantage, Mr Hardcastle came into the room and was naturally astounded by what he saw. Marlowe fled immediately, and Kate had to haggle with her father to get another hour to prove that Mr Marlowe was not as he seemed.

With Marlowe’s father about to arrive any minute – Marlowe himself was still under the impression that he was at an inn – the jewels found their way back to Mrs Hardcastle as Hastings had left them with his friend for safekeeping, and he naturally thought to leave them with the’ landlady’ of the inn. Hardcastle took him to task for ordering his servants to drink as much as they could, and there was a lovely confrontation between them over this. Hardcastle ended up thrusting a lot of the furnishings into Marlowe’s arms, even breaking a painting over his head, and then stormed off in a temper. At long last Marlowe began to realise his mistake, and when he spoke to Kate next she confirmed the truth, that he was indeed in the house of his father’s friend. She didn’t tell him all, though; she stayed in the character of a poor relation of the family, and in short order got the declaration of love she was looking for.

On the jewels front, Tony had assured his mother it was simply a mistake of the servants, and he and Constance pretend to be fond of one another again to keep her happy. This time, they were almost at it on the bench in front of the fire when she came in, and when they broke off it was to act nice and play nasty. He twisted her hand, she slapped his cheek, that sort of thing. Unfortunately, a letter arrived for Tony from Hastings, but as Tony couldn’t read very well he asked his mother to read it out. Constance realised who it was from and took it herself, giving a false reading of the contents. But she made the mistake of inventing a plausible message that actually interested Tony, about fighting cocks and such. When she refused to read all the details, Mrs Hardcastle took on the job herself, and discovered the whole elopement plot. Her temper was very entertaining, especially when she made a very deep curtsey and needed help to get up – one of the funniest moments of the play.

Her decision to take Constance immediately to her aunt Pedigree allowed Tony to play another trick, and he lead the coach up, down and around until both ladies were completely shaken up, jarred to bits and lost. In the garden scene Tony told his mother, whose dress was now dirty from the horse pond, to hide if anyone came along. Mr Hardastle, taking a turn in his garden before bed, found Tony there, and because she was worried about his safety Mrs Hardcastle takes the brave step of coming out of hiding to tell the robbers to leave her son alone. Discovering his trick, she chased him into the house, followed by Hardcastle, and shortly afterwards Constance and Hastings. She was no longer prepared to elope that night, partly because of the journey she’d just had, but mainly because she’d realised that poverty wasn’t the greatest way to start a marriage and she wanted to ask Mr Hardcastle to take pity on them.

Meanwhile Marlowe’s father, Sir Charles Marlowe, had arrived, and yet again there were two competing opinions of young Marlowe’s behaviour, with Marlowe himself claiming he only met Kate once and hardly said anything to her, and Kate asserting that they had met several times, and that Mr Marlowe had, in fact, declared his love for her unequivocally. To find out the truth, Kate arranged for both fathers to overhear her final interview with Marlowe, in which she talked more like herself and he ended up kneeling as if to propose. At this point, Sir Charles leapt out of hiding (they hadn’t been quiet the rest of the time either) and all was revealed. With the remaining characters coming on stage as well, the final discovery regarding Tony Lumpkin solved all problems, and they finished with a rousing dance before taking their bows. Sophie Thompson did another deep curtsey and needed to be helped up – an enjoyable reprise.

Even with the scene changes the cast kept the energy up throughout the performance, and I would really like to see this one again.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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