She Stoops to Conquer (Keswick)
Stephen Longstaffe enjoys this comedy in rep at the Theatre by the Lake.
Theatre by the Lake, Keswick
Goldsmith's late eighteenth-century comedy is certainly a challenge. The characters, unsurprisingly, speak as though they are in a Jane Austen novel. We have plenty of stock characters – mildly rakish young gallants, their virtuous and slightly morally superior beloveds, comic servants, a gruff patriarch and his ‘Town'-obsessed wife, and their ‘booby' son.
Everyone is (more or less) good-hearted, and most of the plot is driven by the undemanding idea that a young gallant is misinformed that his future father-in-law's house is actually an inn, and behaves accordingly.
Director Ian Forrest's fine production recognises the above features as strengths. We're not here to find out about souls but relish the situations. The characters routinely take the audience into their confidence, sometimes with a wit worthy of Austen herself. Physically, the production is a triumph: fops are magnificently foppish; ladies glide and swish; servants gorm and gurn; and the booby has a comic presence all of his own.
The energy is high, the pace and timing spot-on, and a high-quality cast enjoys, rather than sends up, the whole thing. Martin Johns' wonderful set fits perfectly the playfulness of the show by including an eighteenth-century house facade which is opened out, doll's house style, into a parlour.
Much of the comedy comes from the young outwitting their elders. Peter Macqueen's reactions as old-school Mr. Hardcastle make the scenes where he is treated like an inn-keeper in his own house zing. As soi-disant sophisticate Mrs. Hardcastle, Maggie O'Brien's comic incomprehension of what is going on provides another comic butt. Roger Delves-Broughton, as the father of main romantic lead young Marlow (Richard Galazka) provides solidly benevolent support.
Galazka himself not only egads and hems like his life depends on it, but is gifted the comic affliction of crippling shyness with women of his own class, and his stumbling embarrassment when meeting his potential wife Kate Hardcastle (Isabella Marshall) is a delight. Marshall's Kate is the quiet centre of this romantic comedy – unflappable, sparklingly good-humoured, and resourceful. Marlow's companion Hastings (Ben Ingles) embodies quizzical sangfroid as he watches Marlow dig himself further into a hole with his father in law.
Laura Darrall as his beloved, Constance Marshall, gets up to some fine comic business behind the backs of her elders. Comic servants Richard Earl and Janine Birkett keep the mood sunny with their antics. Gareth Cassidy as the booby Tony Lumpkin is compulsively watchable, a character whose every thought and idea is instantly visible as superbly realised physical antics.
A skilful ensemble production nicely balancing romantic comedy with theatrical fun.
- Stephen Longstaffe