I’d heard good things about Northern Broadsides, and it’s been decades since I’ve seen a production of She Stoops to Conquer, so I thought we’d give this one a go. This perennial favourite by Oliver Goldsmith was first performed in 1773, so how do you describe it? It’s too late for Restoration Comedy, so maybe it’s more a Comedy of Manners, and has always enjoyed regular stage revivals and ben studied by diligent English and Drama students for donkeys’ years.
Given it’s been around for almost 250 years, I hope I won’t spoil it for you by outlining the plot. Mr Hardcastle wants his daughter Kate to marry wealthy young gent Charles Marlow, and she’s not at all averse to the idea, but the trouble is Marlow has a psychological hang-up and goes all nervous and timid in front of well to do young ladies (like what Kate is); although with common lasses he’s quite the opposite. At the same time Mrs Hardcastle wants her son Tony Lumpkin (from a previous marriage) to marry her niece Constance, simply so that the family jewels can be kept within… well, the family; sounds a bit incestuous to me. However, Tony and Constance hate each other. Tony would prefer snapping at the heels of an alehouse wench and Constance has her eye on Marlow’s friend Hastings. After much shenanigans involving Marlow and Hastings believing Hardcastle to be an innkeeper and a plot to steal Constance’s jewels from Mrs Hardcastle, both Kate and Constance pair off with their respective chaps leaving Tony free to continue with his dissolute lifestyle much to his mother’s annoyance.
It’s an entertaining play that makes some interesting observations on class structure and is still just as relevant today as it was back in the late 18th century; and this production is enjoyably acted and straightforwardly presented, without any gimmicks to get in the way of the text. However, there were a couple of aspects of it that didn’t quite sit properly with me.
First – the staging. It’s nearly all set inside the Hardcastles’ country seat apart from a scene at the Three Pigeons alehouse and a scene in the Hardcastles’ garden. As a result, chairs and tables from the country house compete with illustrations of trees and bushes on the back wall and the pub sign and counter throughout the whole performance, creating a very messy stage. These suggestions of different locations don’t dovetail nicely and complement each other, they get in the way of each other. Whilst there’s still plenty of acting space available, I found the set jarring and it irritated me.
Secondly – the interpretation of the character of Tony Lumpkin. Nothing against Jon Trenchard, who gives us a very lively, physical performance full of stamina and enthusiasm, but it’s just not how the character is usually played, or how I would imagine him to be. To be fair, Goldsmith doesn’t actually stipulate in the text what kind of mannerisms Lumpkin possesses, although Hardcastle describes him as “fat”; but his name suggests a cross between a useless lump and a country bumpkin, lacking in the niceties of refined behaviour that might otherwise have attracted him to Constance. However, this Tony Lumpkin is foppish. He preens and he poses, he giggles girlishly, he dances around the stage. It’s a very, very different reading of the role from the norm, where you would almost expect Lumpkin to be chewing an ear of wheat – and as everything else in this production is pretty standard and safe, it just feels misplaced.
Nevertheless there are some very entertaining performances. Howard Chadwick’s Hardcastle is full of robust bluster, nicely sarcastic with his wife, but with genuine love for his daughter and slow to ire when Marlow and Hastings treat him like dirt. Oliver Gomm, a brilliant Lysander in the Royal and Derngate’s Midsummer Night’s Dream last year, gives a very good comic performance as the either too terrified or too vagabondish young Marlow, shuddering like a genuine nervous wreck as he tries to speak to Kate. Gilly Tompkins is a delightfully strident and painted Mrs Hardcastle, and there’s a splendidly understated comic performance by Alan McMahon as, inter alia, Pimple the Maid. But for me the two stand out performances were from Hannah Edwards as Kate and Lauryn Redding as Constance. Hilarious before they even open their mouths with their ridiculous coiffures and massively tall hats, they both take their roles seriously and play them straight without ever going over-the-top, giving a slightly hard-edged reality to the story, and allowing the humour to flow naturally.
It’s a good production – and particular congratulations to the wardrobe department for the brilliant costumes – but, overall, it never really wowed me. I quite liked the fact that they hadn’t tried to tamper with it by setting it in a different era or location, but nevertheless I never really warmed to it. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood for an 18th century comedy of manners. One isn’t always; but plenty of other people laughed their heads off. The tour goes on until December and visits Harrogate, Cheltenham, Winchester, Scarborough, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Liverpool, York, Huddersfield and Salford.