Saturday 1 August 2015

Theatre Review: She Stoops To Conquer at the Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

Theatre Royal Bath’s Summer Season has launched some notable productions, with last year’s Hay Fever starring Felicity Kendal – and also directed by Lindsay Posner – currently playing in the West End. For 2015, the season kicks off with Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 popular comedy of manners, She Stoops to Conquer.
Perhaps with a nod to his previous success in directing a Noel Coward play, Posner has taken the bold decision to reposition this eighteenth century classic fairly and squarely in Coward’s 1920s heartland. And so the ladies of the Hardcastle household are bedecked in stunning flapper dresses, the men dressed in spats and tweedy plus fours. It’s a reimagining which works surprisingly well most of the time – if you’re prepared to overlook a few anomalies.
The Hardcastles are expecting a house guest; Charles Marlow, travelling from London, is the son of Mr Hardcastle’s oldest friend and a gentleman of no mean accomplishment. His weakness is his overwhelming reserve with ladies of his own class, but intrigued and by no means put off by this, daughter of the house Kate Hardcastle vows to get to know him better. When Marlow and his travelling companion George Hastings lose their way and stop for directions at the local hostelry, Hardcastle’s feckless stepson Tony Lumpkin cannot help playing a practical joke, pretending that the Hardcastle residence is an inn where they can break their journey.
The plot’s farcical premise takes a little while to set up and it’s only once the comedy of mistaken identities is established that this production really gets going. Michael Pennington’s Mr Hardcastle quickly transforms from genial greetings to puzzlement to a rolling boil of rage, as Marlow takes him for an innkeeper and interrupts his best anecdotes with a series of commands. Anita Dobson demonstrates her comic timing as the vain and gullible Mrs Hardcastle, doting on her son Tony and falling for his pretence of being in love with his cousin. But it is the younger generation who really shine: Catherine Steadman is outstanding as the vivacious and independent Kate, while Charlotte Brimble makes an engaging Constance. Hubert Burton and Jack Holden are a suitably arrogant-yet-lovable double act as Marlow and Hastings, but it is fringe comedian Harry Michell in his acting debut who is in danger of stealing the show with his energetically buffoonish portrayal of Tony Lumpkin.
The design also deserves special mention – Simon Higlett’s stunning revolving stage brings the 1920s setting to life as it transports us from the Hardcastle residence to the Three Pigeons Public House to a quagmire. If some of the story seem a little anachronistic – Marlow’s bawdy treatment of Kate, for example, once he mistakes her for a serving girl, is very much of its time and doesn’t sit well in the sophistication of the 1920s – then it is worth overlooking these inconsistencies and enjoying the sheer entertainment value of this stylishly light-hearted and farcical romp.
Reviewed on Wednesday 8th July 2015 | Photo: Manuel Harlan

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