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Review of She Stoops to Conquer

“There was a time, indeed, I fretted myself about the mistakes of government, like other people; but finding myself every day grow more angry, and the government growing no better, I left it to mend itself.”
So speaks Mr Hardcastle in Oliver Goldmith’s 1773 comedy, She Stoops to Conquer. Hardcastle’s apathy is understandable, given the restricted and corrupt nature of the franchise before the Great Reform Act of 1832. The line drew a rueful laugh from Bromley Little Theatre’s 21st century audience. But our consolation is, surely, that a privileged minority can no longer decide the fate of the government of the United Kingdom…
She Stoops to Conquer is a strange beast, arriving to the stage a hundred years after the Restoration comedies for which it is occasionally mistaken. It lacks their predatory view of humanity, and the stakes are resolutely low, even in comparison with Goldsmith’s brilliant contemporary, Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Instead, it anticipates the gentler fare of playwrights such as Dion Boucicault and Arthur Wing Pinero, with its bucolic setting and absence of villainy.
Mike Darbon’s assured production opened with a jig performed by the ensemble. This was entirely fitting because the ensemble – Peter Yolland, Paul Green, Louise Friend, James Riley, Chris Raven and Mark Dempsey – playing a variety of locals, ne’er-do-wells and servants, was at the heart of events, punctuating scenes with good nature and moving them smoothly along with changes to set and properties.
Music – much of it traditional with a modern edge performed by Scottish folk band Lau, and some of it specially composed by Tom Dignum – was integral. The use of song and dance was redolent of the aesthetic at Shakespeare’s Globe, as were moments when actors stepped beyond the text to engage directly with the audience.
Among the leads, Alice Foster was radiant as Kate Hardcastle, the titular “she” who stoops to conquer by pretending to be a servant to win the affection of the awkward and reticent Marlow (James Insley), a man comfortable only in the company of his social inferiors. This is one aspect of the narrative that, especially in the spotlight of #MeToo, is problematic. Male power is abused, which Goldsmith recognises, but the consequences are elided because the “victim” is from the gentry, and – in a classic example of subversion and containment – the status quo is reaffirmed at the end.
However, to apply such an overtly political reading to the play would be churlish when there was so much else to enjoy. Kate and Marlow received committed support from their respective confidantes, Constance (Niamh Clark) and Hastings (Daniel Pabla), and the trio of Hardcastle (James Strange), Mrs Hardcastle (Heather Wain) and Tony Lumpkin (Richard Stewart) was a delight. Tony was an agent of chaos. In his efforts to make mischief with his step-father’s carefully laid plans, he was part Puck and part Eric Morecambe capsizing yet another Ernie Wise masterpiece, while Mrs Hardcastle trailed in his wake like Glenda Jackson in a fright-wig.
Costumes by Kerstin Beard, lighting design by Emma Christmas and a beautiful unfolding set from Jan Greenough that switched from Georgian parlour to coaching inn to midnight garden ensured a lavish production. Mike Darbon’s meticulous direction succeeded in making the complex appear effortless and, in so doing, delivered the perfect summer crowd-pleaser.
~Jonathan Evans~