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She Stoops to Conquer

The Stage, 9th July 2015, Jeremy Brien

The tradition has long been for the two-month summer season at the Theatre Royal Bath to open on a light note, and this year the choice has fallen on one of the best-loved Restoration comedies - even if Oliver Goldsmith actually wrote it 100 years after the return of the monarch in England.

It carries it’s “Restoration” label as Goldsmith borrows from the rakish humour of such earlier comic writers as Dryden and Congreave for his wildly ridiculous mix of turmoil, misunderstanding and mistaken identity. The director, Lindsay Posner, is well known for his sure touch with comedy, but on this occasion the evening gets off to a slow burn, with the characters weighed down with new-readers-start-here speeches.

It works up a head of steam by the madhouse second-half, though, as London rakes Marlow and Hastings, mistake an ancestral country home for the local inn.

Worse still, Marlow views the owner and his would-be father-in-law Mr Hardcastle, a suitably bamboozled Michael Pennington, as the innkeeper, and his daughter Kate, made delightfully feminine, as the serving girl.

All this has been manoeuvred by Mr Hardcastle’s quirky and pugnacious stepson, Tony Lumpkin, played by fringe comedian Harry Michell making his professional stage debut, while at the centre of the comic roundabout is Anita Dobson’s cunning Mrs Hardcastle, an over-fond mother whose pretensions of grandeur cannot hide her insecurities.

This farcical whirlwind of comedy succeeds in making the women at least as witty as the men - and a deal smarter.

Wiltshire Times, 9th July 2015, Alison Phillips

Restoration drama. Not my usual cup of tea I have to admit, even when told it is so good it has been performed regularly since it was written. Armed with caffeinated beverages and definitely one of the youngest members of the ageing audience I was prepared to keep my eyes propped open.

I was, then, pleasantly surprised to find myself laughing along within the first five minutes. I had thought the play would have been to understand due to the Georgian setting but the director Lindsay Posner’s decision to update the feel of the play to the late 20’s/early 30s made it almost Downton Abbey-ish, and that’s a programme which I love. This definitely made the play feel much more modern and altogether easier to understand and enjoy.

The standout performance for me was from Michael Pennington, who played Mr Hardcastle, the doting and anecdotal father - perhaps, because some of his behaviour, such as his irritation at his extremely overbearing and high pitched wife (Anita Dobson) and his refusal to let his daughter have anyone but the best reminded me of someone.

Tony Lumpkin, the idiotic stepson was brilliantly portrayed by Harry Michell, and as professional stage debuts go I thought he was excellent. Who can resist a man who can pull off performing “Do your balls hang low…” while still appearing suave and lovable?

The clever set design allowed the story to flow and I was impressed by the amount of detail included in the set, as were fellow audience members, from their  supposedly low murmurs. For me this play was dominated by the excellent male characters, I found the female cast members came across as over-acting and stilted. There were, however, good performances from all the cast.

What’sOnStage.com, 9th July 2015, Kris Hallett

The Bath summer season, always one of the highlights of the South West theatre calendar, starts with a version of Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer that’s a good fit for the time of the year: light, frothy and unchallenging fare.

Plopping this piece, first performed in 1773, into the heart of the roaring 20s, cocktail dresses and Charlestons to the fore, makes it a perfect fit for the stately audience of the Theatre Royal but Lindsay Posner’s production doesn’t scratch much beyond the glittering surface; it’s all style over substance.

Goldsmith’s play has probably the tightest plot of the Restoration period, condensed into one tumultuous evening during which London gents Marlow and Hastings mistake a familial home for an inn. The usual Restoration tropes - disguise, mistaken identity, scandalous society women trying to raise their stock and ultimately love overcoming all obstacles - ensues.

Marlow, an impressive debut by RADA graduate Hubert Burton who finds a dash of Bertie Wooster in his schizophrenic turn - can’t bring himself to talk to ladies but is more than happy to cavort with the bar maids and servant girls. When he finds himself in the presence of Catherine Steadman’s hockey stick ra-ra Kate Hardcastle his face crimsons and he can’t raise his eyes from his shoes, but encountering her in disguise as a country girl he is son declaring his undying love and looks ready to consummate their relationship on the living room floor.

It all takes a while to get going but by the second it is at least revving even if there’s a nagging feeling that the cast aren’t quite putting their foot on the pedal. The ever reliable Michael Pennington (soon to be seen in the Kenneth Branagh season) takes the acting honours as Mr Hardcastle, sent into apoplectic fury as he is mistaken for a too literal master of the house, whilst Harry Michell’s Tony Lumpkin is an overbearing, oversized toddler who steals pretty much every scene he’s in.

Anita Dobson as the scheming Mrs Hardcastle, a gargoyle whose main focus us upward advancement in society and whose delusions of grandeur can’t hide insecurities, is still finding her feet, while there is a surprising lack of memorable set pieces in the normally reliable Posner’s production.

Bristol Post, 8th July 2015, Alan King

There  are theatrical traditionalists who baulk at plays being presented out of their time and costume - not for them Henry V leading England to victory in the Championships or the ancient Greeks fighting the Vietnam war.

So when Anita Dobson appears dressed in the 1920s Jazz Age frills and the local drinkers belt out bawdy rugby club ditties you know this is not going to be purist 18th century values.

Lindsay Posner takes a risk in pushing the fast-forward time button on Oliver Goldsmith’s 18th century classic but it works a treat thanks to his slick direction, some notable cast characterisations and Simon Higlett’s stunning revolving set which transforms itself from manor house to public house and finally to outhouse with magical effect.

Charles Marlow - an impressive professional debut from Hubert Burton - is painfully shy around “ladies of his own class” but has no inhibitions with “the lower orders”.

Kate Hardcastle - a sparkling portrayal by Catherine Steadman - pretends to be a barmaid to cure and catch him.

Along the way there are mistaken identities, family in-fighting and jolly pranks to keep the pot bubbling.

The admirable Michael Pennington is wonderfully exasperated as the lord of the manor who is mistaken for an innkeeper and Anita Dobson, as his wife gets more and more angry and more amusing as her plots are foiled

The chief troublemaker is the squire’s stepson Tony a practical joker determined not to marry the cousin his other has picked for him. Usually seen as a jack-the-lad Michell plays him as a beefy buffoon - more bumpkin than Lumpkin.

Bath Chronicle, 8th July 2015, Nancy Connolly

Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer is a complicated comedy of manners and a difficult play to perform.

Steeped in Goldsmith’s typical flowery, witty and intricate language it is full of deceits and falsehoods which are hilarious even to a modern audience.

Nobody is who they should be, and nothing is what it should be, in true comedy style.

Anita Dobson as the ageing but vain hag Mrs Hardcastle is most natural and vigorous in the role, and her lines are delivered with perfect comic timing.

She plays opposite the legendary Michael Pennington, who is superb as the quintessential if somewhat confused English country gentleman.

The young characters are superb and deliver a classy and polished performance in the roles of Tony, Kate, Constance and the adorably upper class Marlow. Harry Michell as the bumptious, overweight and spoilt son of Mrs Hardcastle is delightfully comic.

Catherine Steadman as Kate Hardcastle is lovingly devious. One of the highlights of this production of Goldsmith’s classic play is the wonderful revolving set, which is at one time the drawing room of a country house and then the front room of the Three Pigeons public house.

It is wonderfully atmospheric, with a beautifully lit twilight scene behind it.

Costumes are also very impressive in this production, which is set in the 1920s.

It is a bit of a departure for Ms Dobson, most well known for being the landlady of the Queen Vic in Eastenders. But she plays it well and seems to be getting more comfortable in the role as the season continues.

The audience were very responsive, there were a lot of laughs and some innovation in this most traditional of comedies. And the genius of Goldsmith is made very evident by the eloquent delivery of the lines by all the actors on the stage.

Some audience members, especially the younger ones, seemed to be confused by the complicated plot but enjoyed the comedy none the less.

It is a lovely production which plays homage to the genre of classic English comedy, and the genius of this master of comedy is given a modern twist.

The Daily Telegraph, 10th July 2015, Dominic Cavendish

There’s something strangely modern about Oliver Goldsmith’s enduring 1773 comedy, in so far as it expresses (and exaggerates) the insecurity of the male psyche. Are there any men brave enough to admit they recognise themselves in the anti-heroic figure of Charles Marlow, who is tongue-tied with women of his own - educated refined - class but becomes quite the lusty lad when consorting with forward lasses from what had yet to be called a working-class background?

It’s not a case of the mask of civility being ripped off to reveal the beast within. Rather than approving or disapproving of Marlow’s shortcoming (apparently Goldsmith’s own) the genius of the piece is that it casts a wry but generous eye to his foibles. And it makes them come good, via a device of high contrivance. Having been gulled into thinking that the country house of the woman he has come to court - Kate Hardcastle - is an inn, Marlow is brought out of himself by Kate’s impersonation of an ordinary serving wench. Despising his inbred timidity, she releases him from it - she ‘stoops to conquer’.

While you can imagine a radical update of the play fit for our feminist times, Lindsay Posner serves both it, and the required levity of the Theatre Royal Bath’s summer season, well by bringing it as boldly far, but no further, than the 1920s. Instead of fusty wigs and foppery, we get a world of plus-fours, gramophones and Charlestons with Union Jack bunting and stag heads on the walls as Simon Higlett’s delightful design spins from the Three Pigeons pub to the pile to which Wooster-ish Marlow and his snooty mate Hastings repair.

Rosy-cheeked Hubert Burton has a superb comic timing as the delude Marlow, toe-curlingly disdainful towards old Hardcastle, the man he mistakes for an inn-keeper - a winning study in barely contained explosive fury from Michael Pennington. Sure to go far too, Catherine Steadman switches likeably and effortlessly between cool, high-born Kate and her warm West Country alter-ego.

There’s spiritied support from Harry Michell as Hardcastle’s oafish step-son, Jack Holden as the hoity-toity Hastings and Charlotte Brimble as his furtive belle Constance. Last but not least, Anita Dobson acquits herself admirably in the unflattering role of Hardcastle’s fusspot wife - even ending up on all fours in a muddied dress. On the opening night her read-life hubby, Queen’s Brian May, was there to lend supportive titters. They all deserve far louder laughs, though.

Sunday Express, 12th July 2015

Just as race s a tender spot for Americans, so class is for the English and it takes an Irish dramatist, whether Sheridan, Wilde or Shaw, to make fun of it.

One of their most accomplished predecessors was Oliver Goldsmith, whose 1773 comedy, She Stoops to Conquer, centres on Charles Marlow, so nervous of women of his own rank that he is only able to woo Kate Hardcastle when he takes her for a barmaid. Lindsay Posner’s splendid production updates Marlow’s social and sexual confusions to a Wodehousian world of hidebound gentry, fast young women and lovable silly asses.

Its success is due both to Posner’s and designer Simon Higlett’s unerring eye for detail and the naturalness of the cast. Chief among them are Michael Pennington, supremely funny as the much put-upon Mr Hardcastle and Anita Dobson, part dowager, part would-be flapper, as his wife.

Catherine Steadman is a charmingly self-willed Kate, and there are highly promising stage debuts from Hubert Burton as Marlow and Harry Michell as an unusually sympathetic Tony Lumpkin.

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