She Stoops To Conquer
by Oliver Goldsmith
Directed by Lindsay Posner
Designer Simon Higlett
Bath Theatre Royal
Saturday, 11th June, 2.30 pm
Michael Pennington as Mr Hardcastle
Anita Dobson as Mrs Hardcastle
Catherine Steadman as Kate Hardcastle
Harry Michell as Tony Lumpkin, stepson to Mr Hardcastle
Charlotte Brimble as Constance Neville, Kate’s cousin
Hubert Burton as Charles Marlowe
Jack Holden as Hastings
Maxwell Hutcheson as Sir Charles Marlowe
Andrew Macbean as Landlord / Jeremy, Marlowe’s drunken servant
Richard Pryal as Diggory, a servant
Christopher Bonwell as Thomas, a servant
James Peake as Roger, a servant
Lydea Perkins as Pimple, a maid
Philip White, Matt Parker … company
The three greatest comedies in the English Language are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, She Stoops to Conquer and The Importance of Being Earnest. They can’t go wrong even if you stand and read out the text (at least of the last two).
This Bath version is radical in that it is costumed and set in the 1920s, rather than set when it was written (1773 … though generic 18th century is enough). It’s a particularly unusual decision for Bath, because the theatre and its environs, the entire city, so conjure up the era of the play, and as we saw with The School for Scandal a couple of years ago, the theatre itself fits and frames the play. The main entrance dates to 1720, and Beau Nash’s house was next door. The theatre was erected behind the façade in 1805. The poster and flier (above) were around months ago and it’s a clever idea … but she’s firmly 18th century.
We are accustomed to Shakespeare being relocated in time. By The Importance of Being Earnest, we have enough photographs of the era to fix the era in our mind. She Stoops To Conquer? Let’s see.
The Hardcastles live in the country, near Bath in fact. Mr Hardcastle is a veteran of Marlborough’s wars. It is Mrs Hardcastle’s second marriage. Their daughter is named Kate, but her son by her first marriage is Tony Lumpkin, an oaf. She is also guardian for her niece, Constance. Mr Hardcastle has planned with his old pal, Sir Charles Marlowe, to introduce their offspring to each other. Marlowe and Hastings are London beaus, so “Frenchified.” Hastings wishes to marry Constance. Mrs Hardcastle wants her son, the oafish Tony, to marry Constance.
Hastings (Jack Holden), Marlowe (Hubert Burton), Mr Hardcastle (Michael Pennington)
Marlowe has a problem. He is tongue-tied, stuttering in the presence of ladies, like Kate. He’s a randy bastard with octopus arms when confronted with serving wenches. On the way to the Hardcastle’s house, Marlowe and Hasting ask Tony Lumpkin for directions. He directs them to the Hardcastle house, but tells them it’s an inn with a garrulous old landlord and landlady. So they are rude and commanding when they get there. Kate realizes Marlowe’s problem, so pretends to be a barmaid at the inn so he can woo her … so ‘she stoops to conquer.’
Right. First move was to place it in the 1920s and dress everyone smartly. So this becomes the “Non-Bucolic” version. Marlowe is played by Hubert Burton, in his professional stage debut, as Bertie Wooster writ large. Hastings (Jack Holden) is the straight part, pursuing Constance, but in cricket blazer, sweater and whites. Mr Hardcastle is now Colonel Blimp in a tweed suit, rather than a red-faced and coarse country squire. Mrs Hardcastle speaks “nicely” but drops into Mummerset when angry with her son. Tony Lumpkin (Harry Michell) is no longer a coarse shambling country oaf, but a very tall eccentric chap in plus fours. Both lead girls are cool twenties lasses.
Mrs Hardcastle (Anita Dobson) and Hastings (Jack Holden)
There are parts where the concept flies. When we see Tony Lumpkin in the Three Pigeons pub, everyone except him is in hooped rugby shirts (and mud) and they sing vulgar ruby songs. Superb. The arrival of Marlowe and Hastings is accentuated, the barmaid is doing great silent reactive stuff.
Tony Lumpkin sings vulgar rugby ditties in the pub
Then there’s Mr Hardcastle instructing his three varied servants on how to behave … the military one, the dumb one and the fat oik. Fabulous.
The best scene in the play, one you’d extract as an example, is the arrival of Marlowe and Hastings, mistaking the house for an inn. That worked perfectly in 1920s dress, possibly because they all played it so well. Those three scenes ran so well I was sitting forward thinking it was a great interpretation. That didn’t entirely last.
Kate (Catherine Steadman) and Mr Hardcastle (Michael Pennington)
The two girls, Kate (Catherine Steadman, who is Mabel Lane Fox in Downton Abbey ) as Kate Hardcastle, and Charlotte Brimble as Constance Neville are very funny, very engaging. Hubert Burton was casting inspiration … facial and body language are at the highest level. All of them know how to step forward and address the audience aside, a feature of the play. All five “young” parts were good casting. Both the major Kate-Marlowe scenes … first when she’s a lady and he can’t look at her, second when she’s a barmaid and he can’t keep his hands off her … were magic. Great chemistry.
The set is intriguing, suspended in space with projected trees around it, it revolves to reveal the pub, and later a barn, representing the garden. The house set is elaborate with ranks of stuffed animals in glass cases … we saw one stuffed fox the day before in an antiques shop and it was £1300. Maybe you can rent taxidermy. It looks like an inn to Marlowe and Hastings, but then they have been told at the Three Pigeons pub that the inn has the best table in the district. As an inn, it looks rather the sort of country house hotel with Molton Brown toiletries, even in the loos next to the restaurant, and piles of folded cloth napkins next to the hand drier. A row of artfully mud-spattered wellies next to the front door are obligatory.
So … first rate set, first rate casting. Which makes it puzzling that it felt somewhat flat to us. Was it the lack of reaction from a matinee audience? Laughs were few and far between (except me, actually – I laughed a lot). This can kill timing for actors. Unusually for Bath, it was by no means full. Nowhere near. Bath Carnival the same afternoon? Regulars avoiding the vast crowds of July Saturday Bath (and difficulty in parking)? The Theatre Royal also gets a constant flow of first rate productions for reasonably short runs, so audience expectations are set high. As I’ve said, if you’re used to a responsive audience and you get a dead one, comic timing gets thrown.
L to R: Tony Lumpkin, Mrs Hardcastle, Hastings, Constance
The curtain calls summed it up. The season was advertised as Anita Dobson and Michael Pennington starring in She Stoops To Conquer. Hang on … if you were to cast George Clooney as Claudius and Meryl Streep as Gertrude, sorry, but a complete unknown playing Hamlet is still “the star.” They didn’t take that on board. The curtain call placed Anita Dobson and Michael Pennington in front of everyone. Anita Dobson then moved even further forward to take a solo curtsey. NO! NO! NO! Follow the rules of every pantomime. The TWO ROMANTIC COUPLES take the most prominent bow. The principle comedian (here Tony Lumpkin) joins them. Maybe the seats were sold on Ms Dobson and Mr Pennington’s involvement, but in the story, they are the leading character actors (and very good too) NOT leading actors. Give it to the five younger ones who actually starred. Look at the title “She” (who stoops) is Kate Hardcastle. I really believe you take bows according to the plot, not the fame and status of the actor. Applause was good, but not ecstatic, at this matinee perhaps because they did it wrongly.
Driving home we spent 90 minutes analysing why we both thought it fell flat … three star if we have to rate it. We agreed. The time shift screwed it. We lost the bawdy over-the-top 18th century play, which was squeezed into a mannered 1920s Jeeves and Wooster. Mr Hardcastle needs to be a crude country squire … it’s in the lines.
HARDCASTLE (to Marlowe) : Girls like to be played with, and rumpled a little too, sometimes. But she has told me no tales, I assure you.
It’s not what a tweedy 1920s man would say. It is what a coarse 18th century squire would say. Tony Lumpkin, brilliant and innovative as Harry Michell’s version was, is normally cruder, rougher, louder. Having said that, Hubert Burton as Marlowe is a true discovery … you’ll never find a better Bertie Wooster for starters. Catherine Steadman and Charlotte Brimble were engaging and funny, and I feel we’ll see a lot more of both in major roles. Jack Holden was marvellous as Hastings, an unrewarding role, feeding everyone else with lines. I think Maxwell Hutcheson’s magnificent bristling white eyebrows (as Marlowe’s father) deserve a credit all of their own.
L to R: Tony Lumpkin, Mrs Hardcastle, Mr Hardcastle in the barn
There’s an intrinsic pantomime element in Tony Lumpkin driving Mrs Hardcastle and Constance in circles around the estate through ponds and mud. The barn looked great … but we lost all the vigour and knockabout the scene needs and has had in the past. If you’re shifting time, it’s a mistake to be too precious about Goldsmith’s actual lines … particularly references to getting the horses ready for the elopement, and then Mrs Hardcastle taking Constance away. Tony Lumpkin is in leather coat and goggles. It begs a tiny change to getting “the car” or “motorbike” ready. When you’re scripting for film or video you put changeable elements in brackets … “It’s the house with a (blue) door” because you’ll go with whatever colour the door is on the street you’re filming. You can do that with Goldsmith, surely?
When I saw the barn set come into view, I was already anticipating Tony arriving with a motorbike and sidecar (because of his costume earlier). It didn’t happen. Missed opportunity.
Our conclusion? The time shift looked great, produced a wonderful Marlowe and Hastings, and Kate and Constance too, but we didn’t think overall that it served the play. However, as I say so often about Bath’s summer season, this amount of effort and originality really deserves a West End run … Hay Fever last year got one too. I think a Friday evening with a livelier audience, might up my rating.
Bath’s usual Season programme covering all three productions, two of which we don’t want to see, and mixing up the artists in all three. Nul pointes. Again. Everyone complains about it every year. They don’t listen.
OTHER REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG:
Salmon Fishing in Yemen (FILM)
POSH by Laura Wade,
The Shoemaker’s Holiday by Thomas Dekker, RSC