FringeReview UK 2017
She Stoops to Conquer is a production directed by Felicity Clements that exudes fresh thinking: Julia Goss has been commissioned to write a new Prologue and Epilogue. Steven Adams’ and casts’ miraculous box of a set folds varnished wooden panels of the house’s drawing room, doubling back to reveal a grey-green stippled exterior of either pub or countryside. Michael James’ catchy cod-eighteenth century music resembles a 1960s film score evoking this period. Beverley Grover’s lighting and sound design pinpoints both functions with neatness, operated by Mimi Godard.
Felicity Clements had some quick-change decisions to make when the scheduled play turned up at BOAT this May. What she’s come up with – Oliver Goldsmith’s 1771 She Stoops to Conquer – is such an inspired choice and execution it seems unbelievable. It’s a production exuding fresh thinking and such clarity that Julia Goss has been commissioned to write a zesty diptych of Prologue and Epilogue – the last referring to Goldsmith’s real-life travails that gave rise to the play. These, sprinkled lightly with a few deliberate anachronisms like sell-by are intoned by Ciaran O’Connor’s excellent Hastings and Frankie Knight’s maid Pimple. They’re superbly written and delivered like this are worth the ticket alone.
Naturally there’s everything in between including tweaks to text like ‘strong and stable’ government all encased by yet another of Steven Adams’ and casts’ miraculous box of a set: folding varnished wooden panels of the house’s drawing room, doubling back to reveal a grey-green stippled exterior of either pub or countryside. A folding seat becomes a pub table where the comedian Tony Lumpkin (Nik Balfe) hatches mischief. Various period chairs, suggestive paintings and brass warming pans render this another jewel. Not least is a painting of husband and wife that turns into a spyhole. Among amateur theatres only the larger Lewes Little can bear comparison. In truth, Adams’ sets deserve awards and the widest recognition on another level.
Michael James’ superbly catchy cod-eighteenth century music, fit for Lock Up Your Daughters is the most zesty of its kind I’ve heard, resembling a late 1960s type film score evoking this period. Beverley Grover’s lighting and sound design pinpoints both functions with a neatness not seen in some larger theatres, operated by Mimi Godard.
The plot relies on two sparks being misled. Hastings is secretly affianced to Constance Neville the niece of Mrs Hardcastle, whither they’re bound. Marlow’s openly fingered for Mr Hardcastle’s own daughter Kate: both fathers have proposed the match subject to approval. Marlow though is painfully shy with women of his class but hypocritically licentious though not predatory among working-class girls. Mischievous Lumpkin encountering them at a pub makes them believe his parent’s house is an inn. Robert Nicholl’s consummately blustering Mr Harcastle has drilled his staff like a reception army completing the unwitting illusion and is understandably upset when his old friend’s son Marlow and Hastings treat him like an uppity innkeeper, and refuse to laugh at his Spanish Succession war jokes which even Hardcastle couldn’t have fought in. Lumpkin’s even emphasized Hardcastle will act up as the country gentleman he really is.
Hastings and Neville quickly realise this when they meet, but Miss Hardcastle or plain Kate knows Marlow’s stiffness can only be overcome if she plays a serving wench: easy since his face was averted from hers in their awkward formal interview. This works. Too well. Perhaps a poor relation with greater vocabulary? Aimee Tyas relishes learning her near-Brummy accent off Knight’s Pimple and moves Marlow by nosing inches to honourable address – she seems happiest too in slyly sliding registers away from perfect RP. But then Marlow’s bashfulness sets in. Tyas and Morley’s shiveringly good exchanges again emphasize Goldsmith’s psychological mastery.
Less easy though is Marlow’s cavalier treatment of the Hardcastles, Goldsmith’s pointing up the arrogance even a half-hero like Marlow displays when disdaining the familiarities of imagined subordinates. It’s the brilliant inversion of Marlow’s sexual make-up that renders him human, his prejudices manageable and the plot magnificent. Paul Morley encompasses stiffness, hauteur and a flinchingly truthful terror of the ‘quality’ Miss Hardcastle – whilst salaciously advancing on her as a serving girl. His embarrassment’s the most excruciating I’ve ever seen in this role, a stand-out cringe.
Hastings and Neville long in love (a passionate kiss is quipped with ‘it’s been a long time’) on the other hand create a perfect period music. Gina Jamieson springs back on O’Connor point for point, in love, intrigue and upbraiding despair; it’s literally a class act. Jamieson’s singing too delightfully covers a late scene change.
The equally sparky Balfe is both a lighter Lumpkin than tradition dictates and thus even more convincing. He displays the command of a young man hitting his majority (sooner than he knows) with a dance-like energy in song and table-springing.
Te exraordnary plot-twists – like Lumpkin’s stealing Neville’s jewels for her from her autn, only for Marlow to inadverntey return them, Lumpkin failing to recognize a letter from Hastigns till his mother intercepts it, and his fantastical redemption involving a coach-ride to hell and back never laving the house’s precincts – all this has to be seen.
But on the way, relish Patti Griffiths in other roles than wig-maker and choreographer as she is yet again, as Mrs Hardcastle. Her take’s somehow more aggrieved: less air-headed more earthily resentful than anything else. Ger stand-offs with Balfe’s Lumpkin enter slapstick ad Keystone Cop notes chasing him punctuated with violent cries offstage.
Elsewhere Gerry Wicks’ Sir Charles Marlow late on is consummate and a perfect foil to his rustic friend. Marc Pinto multi-roles as the only bright servant bar Knight’s pert Pimple. Dug Godfrey’s Diggory is the stand-out idiot bemusedly echoing command words like a traditionally challenged mimic, with militaristic exaggerations suggesting mild shell-shock, or shot-shock. Taciturn Linda Reynolds, befuddled Richard de Costobadie (also assistant director and sheep carrier) and the young hapless Sam Stansfield all inn-habitants swell Griffiths’ joyous dance.
Clements has paced this with alacrity and probing clarity – something occasionally overlooked in a scramble to period farce. She also brings out, with a superb ensemble, the truth of Goldsmith’s characters, several like Marlow and Lumpkin emerging as minted as their fortunes. Others like Sir Charles, Hardcastle, Hastings and Neville ring with an authenticity not always encountered in big productions. The detailing of servant behaviour too marks another high in BLT productions. You’ll not see a more joyous, clear or truthful production of this perennial for years. And Goss’s Prologue and Epilogue should be published.