On the opening night of She Stoops to Conquer in 1773, author Oliver Goldsmith's friends allegedly stationed one of their number 'with the most contagious laugh' in an upper box, hoping to spur the audience on. Such was Goldsmith's insecurity. He needn't have worried; this comedy has survived two centuries and will no doubt be around for another few hundred years.
Here, Max Stafford-Clark directs his Out of Joint company in an amusing though hardly ground-breaking production of Goldsmith's classic. It's prettily set in Julian McGowan's convincing if rather clumsy oak-panelled setting, and is colourfully costumed.
Deliberately or otherwise, Stafford-Clark downplays Tony Lumpkin, surely one of the great comedic characters of the English stage. In Owen Sharpe's hands, Lumpkin - jester and mischief-maker - is less Feste and more Iago. Beneath the impish good humour seems to lie an unsettling darkness. The consequence is that the Hardcastle household, a dysfunctional tribe of grotesques if ever there was one, are brought into sharper focus. Ian Redford as the amiable and bluff head of the family has the best of it and Jane Wood, as his harridan spouse lends able support.
The nominal hero of She Stoops to Conquer is Young Marlow. He's tricked into mistaking Hardcastle's house for an inn and treating him as landlord and his daughter, Kate, as servant. Marlow is supposed to be painfully shy with ladies of his own class but rather more forward with 'women of another stamp'. Christopher Staines never really captures his timidity but has more success when frolicking with the playful and deceitful Kate in her servant guise.
Monica Dolan's Kate is cute and has more bounce than Tigger. When 'she stoops to conquer' her man, she's delightful. The subplot concerning the planned elopement of Marlow's friend, Hastings, with Kate's cousin, Constance Neville, is played straight and without its essential humour. As characters, they're ciphers and, as performed by Stephen Beresford and Fritha Goodey, tedious adjuncts to the main action.
Although She Stoops has its farcical elements, it's essentially a series of contrasts - between age and youth, city and country, upper and lower classes. To illustrate this, Stafford-Clark endows the provincial Hardcastles with a Brummie brogue so thick it would shame The Archers' Eddie Grundy. Hogarth out of the West Midlands, you could say. This is a theatrical device that provides some intermittent amusement, although it eventually wears thin.
Underlying this are more significant contrasts - between appearance and reality, desire and obligation. In this respect, Goldsmith's perfectly structured drama still speaks to contemporary dilemmas in its pursuit of pleasure versus the search for moral values.
Despite some production deficiencies of this production, She Stoops to Conquer still has something to say and does so in a vernacular which still gives enormous pleasure centuries on.
- Stephen Gilchrist (reviewed at Salisbury Playhouse)