Brief Encounter with… Northern Broadsides' Conrad Nelson

The acclaimed theatre company’s director talks about touring Oliver Goldsmith’s 18th century comedy

The choice of She Stoops to Conquer for Northern Broadsides’ next major tour may seem outside the company’s usual range of material, though director Conrad Nelson points to an earlier tour of A School for Scandal, another comedy of the same era. However, Broadsides’ scope constantly enlarges from trenchant versions of the classics, notably Shakespeare, through adaptations of European plays and newly commissioned plays to forgotten gems of Northern theatre, to the extent that Conrad doesn’t even see why modern American theatre shouldn’t join the mix in the future, though I’m a bit concerned about Pennine accents in David Mamet!

Northern Broadsides' resident director and composer, Conrad Nelson
Northern Broadsides' resident director and composer, Conrad Nelson
© Northern Broadsides

Oliver Goldsmith‘s great 18th century comedy is one of the few plays with a title that’s become proverbial, but it is a fair summary of the central romance. Kate Hardcastle wishes to gain the heart of young Marlow who has the eccentric quality of being tongue-tied in the presence of women of quality and quite the reverse with the lower classes – so Kate stoops to the level of servant to conquer Marlow’s heart.

The play is full of vital characters, notably Mrs. Hardcastle, the would-be sophisticated wife of a country squire (Conrad makes a nice comparison to Hyacinth Bucket), and her spoilt and mischievous son by a previous marriage, Tony Lumpkin. It also contains a typically 18th century stand-off between the country and the city, but above all the comedy spins out from one central error: Tony persuades Marlow and Hastings, the young gents from London, that the Hardcastles’ manor house is an inn!

Conrad’s production of the play involves no radical change in the text (there are a few cuts, but that’s all), period or setting. In fact, the first major change he tells me of involves a reinterpretation of one of the major characters:

"Tony Lumpkin is generally played as a booby, but the text suggests he’s quick-witted, though not always right. He doesn’t reach the right conclusions, but he’s waspish and Puck-like. So I’m presenting Lumpkin as much more energetic, more – for want of a better word – camp. He keeps things buoyant, he’s not just a rustic who speaks really slowly."

Anyone who remembers John Trenchard as Snapper in A Government Inspector will have an idea how far from the doltish bumpkin his Tony Lumpkin is likely to be! Of course the company is Northern Broadsides and, although the blunt Pennine vowels are no longer mandatory in the productions, it would be ridiculous to insist on Lumpkin trotting out yokelish stage West Country. What line is Conrad taking with regional accents?

"The play is set somewhere in the North, so that brings up questions of language and accent. The parental side is more Northern – Harrogate, if you like – and the younger generation, Constance and Kate, are sort of flat-vowelled standard pronunciation."

With the London gentlemen speaking standard English and servants who could come from anywhere in the country, this is a production of great vocal variety, not just the posh-and-peasant that you can still come across.

Another feature we always anticipate with Northern Broadsides is the quantity and excellence of music and dance. The last production, the outstanding August Bank Holiday Lark, was the apotheosis of the company’s clog-dancing tradition, but that doesn’t really fit with Oliver Goldsmith and music plays a more minor role this time:

"There isn’t a great deal of music in She Stoops to Conquer, only the song in the pub. Kate used to have a song, but I’m not putting that back in. Sometimes you see productions and they come to a song and they say, ‘Get over it’ – it’s like, ‘How are we going to get through a song?’ Actually, the song can be a springboard as narrative and entertainment, so I take the view with our pub song that it’s something to be enjoyed: you can get 20 minutes of value after it because everyone’s on an up. But I’m not layering this with music because it’s a play that needs pace."

Ever inventive musically, on this second day of rehearsal, Conrad is still toying with the idea of Constance and Hastings, the other pair of lovers, greeting each other in cooing tones reminiscent of the "Pa-pa-papagena" duet in The Magic Flute, but the words he keeps returning to are alacrity, dexterity and texturing. The play must above all have pace, but not pace in the sense of sheer "let’s get it finished" speed – which is where the texturing comes in.

And it should be fun. We hardly had time to go through the basically traditional costumes of Jessica Worrall, but the prospect of Mrs. Hardcastle in tiger print and massive ginger wig – "the wrong side of bling", according to Conrad – is instantly appealing – or do I mean appalling?

See below for full list of tour dates:

29 August-6 September Viaduct Theatre, Halifax

9-13 Sep The Dukes, Lancaster

16-20 Sep Rose Theatre Kingston

23 –27 Sep The Playhouse Oxford

30 Sept -4 Oct Harrogate Theatre

7 –11 Oct – Everyman Theatre Cheltenham

14-18 Oct – Theatre Royal Winchester

21 –25 Oct – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

28 –2 Nov – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

4–14 Nov – New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme

18-22 Nov – Liverpool Playhouse

25-29 Nov – York Theatre Royal

2-6 Dec – Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield

9–13 Dec – The Lowry, Salford Quays