Tuesday, 10 April 2012

She Stoops to Conquer - National Theatre, Monday 9th April 2012

Squire Hardcastle's second wife is quite determined that her spoiled and not too brilliant son, Tony Lumpkin, shall marry her niece, Constance Neville. In this way she will be enabled to keep in the family Miss Neville's fortune which consists of a casket of valuable jewels. The young people, however, have other plans, especially Miss Neville who is secretly pledged to Hastings.
Mr. Hardcastle, likewise, has plans for his own charming daughter, Kate, whom he wishes to marry the son of his old friend, Sir Charles Marlow. It is young Marlow's misfortune to be dumb in the presence of ladies of his own social status. He is, however, a master of clever repartee when talking to barmaids and girls of like station.
The Hardcastle family are expecting the arrival of young Marlow and his friend, Hastings. The approaching travellers stop at the village inn to inquire their way. Tony Lumpkin, who is there as usual with his cronies, conceives the idea of persuading the young men that they have lost their way and will have to spend the night at an inn. He directs them to the Hardcastle house which he highly recommends if they will excuse the eccentricities of the owner and his family.
Neither young Marlow nor Squire Hardcastle sense that both are victims of a hoax and the squire is much incensed at the bold and impudent behavior of his friend's son. Young Hastings, as soon as he sees Constance, puts two and two together. This pair agree to keep Marlow in ignorance and pretend that Constance and Kate simply happen to be stopping the night at the inn.
When introduced to Kate, young Marlow can find little to say and stumbles over that. In his embarrassment he never once looks at her face. It is not surprising, therefore, that later in the evening when he sees her going about the house in the plain house dress her father insists on, he takes her for the barmaid. She encourages the deception in order to find out if he is really as witless as he seems. In her barmaid's guise she is pleasantly surprised to find him not dumb but, indeed, possessed of a graceful and ready wit. When she reveals herself as a well born but poor relation of the Hardcastle family he acknowledges his love for her.
Further comic situations are created by Tony's attempts to help Constance and her lover elope with her casket of jewels. When through ludicrous misunderstandings these come to naught, Squire Hardcastle benignly sets everything right for both pairs of lovers.
Hardcastle - Steve Pemberton
Mrs Hardcastle, his second wife - Sophie Thompson
Kate Hardcastle, their daughter - Katherine Kelly
Tony Lumpkin, Mrs Hardcastle’s son - David Fynn
Miss Neville, Mrs. Hardcastle’s niece - Cush Jumbo
Hastings - John Heffernan
Sir Charles Marlow - Timothy Speyer
Young Marlow, his son - Harry Hadden-Paton
Landlord - Gavin Spokes

Creative Team:
Written by Oliver Goldsmith
Director - Jamie Lloyd
Designer - Mark Thompson
Lighting Designer - Neil Austin
Music Director - David Shrubsole

I never really expected to be vastly entertained by this. She Stoops to Conquer is, I will admit, not one of my favourite plays, bearing as it does many similarities with the plays of Sheridan (many of which I find painfully similar to each other and which generally bore me to tears) and more than a touch of farce, my least favourite theatrical genre. I saw it for the first time many moons ago, before this blog was born (and, I think before there was even such a thing as the internet) and it failed to captivate me then. If a play doesn’t grab you the first time round, the second or third time isn’t really going to change your opinion violently one way or the other. You may choose to disagree with this opinion; that’s fine by me. I have on occasion seen something again and elevated it in my opinion as a consequence, but the opposite has also happened. This particular production didn’t stir me violently one way or the other – it merely confirmed my original feeling of “I can take it or leave it”. In fact, I would sum my reaction to SSTC as a play as being “an overwhelming meh”. This makes a review incredibly difficult to write – it’s a great deal of fun ripping something to shreds (particularly when you know your opinion is likely to piss other people off because they loved it) and generally a pleasure to write something laudatory (even more so when everyone else is hurling abuse at it). But when you feel ambivalent about something – that poses a problem.

So the tack I am going to take with this review is “it looks authentic”. Both the director and the designer have wisely avoided trying to make it “relevant” and have presented it honestly and intelligently with a view to how it may have looked during its original run back in the 1770s. Visually, the production is certainly everything you would wish for, with elegant and accurate costumes, presented in a limited colour range which looks right for the period - apart from one coat in shrieking peacock blue and about which I have serious reservations, everything else is in a wonderfully restrained and visually harmonious palette of colours, and the Costume Department have obviously done their homework very well. Costume-wise, its just what you want (and expect) for a play of this period. The scenery is superb and fits the bill perfectly; on the vast, hangar-like stage of the Olivier, the large and gloomy Hardcastle Hall is brilliantly realised – you can almost feel the draughts whistling under the doors. The sound design, with an “overture” of country noises, dogs barking off-stage when people arrive or depart, and so on, is excellent.

To the modern audience, the playing style seems extremely OTT at times, although this again brings a touch of realism because audiences at the time were extremely rowdy and ill-behaved. Theatres of the period were small, crowded and noisy; places to socialise with your friends, get drunk, see and be seen. The actors would often have to fight to be heard, and there would be little point in subtle and naturalistic acting; it would just get lost. The entire place would have been (relatively) brilliantly lit with candles – not until the mid-Edwardian era would the auditorium lights be turned off or down during the performance, so the cast were competing visually as well as audibly. So the very broad playing style is perfectly in period, although this does become extremely tiresome at times, particularly when the cast juxtapose this with modern interpolations in their style of what I would loosely call the “ooooh, suits YOU sir!” school of acting. The diction of the cast cannot generally be faulted – in an extremely wordy play such as this, its important that you can hear what is going on (although one particular member of the cast overdoes things to a degree resulting in her lines becoming a bit hit and miss on the audibility front). Everybody else, though, can be heard with great clarity, and that is something that cannot be taken for granted these days when many actors don’t seem to be able to speak at all clearly or project properly. So, so far, so good.

In order to provide transition between scenes, we are treated to a large chorus of supernumeraries making music with tin cans, kettles, candlesticks and “things to bang them with”, and I found this distracting and yet another example of the National’s apparent policy of putting jolly music into practically every large-scale production whether it be needed or not. There are five musicians in the off-stage orchestra, and it seemed daft to have these as well as the on-stage one – I can’t now recall a single moment in the course of the play when the off-stage orchestra were playing. There were a couple of moments of great hilarity when the mist billowing across the floor in the orchard scene got a bit out of hand and swamped the first two rows of the stalls, leading to two of the cast corpsing outright – although it struck me afterwards that the text actually demands fog in the air, rather than the floor-bound variety. Its supposed to obscure people’s faces rather than their feet. However, there is nothing an audience like better than seeing something go wrong and watching the poor actors trying to get out of it.

Out of all the cast, the one I had most problems with was Sophie Thompson, whose strangulated vowel sounds and wandering regional accent made her sometimes difficult to understand. At several points in the play, she curtsies deeply and the joke is that she is then unable to get up again without help. But every time she went down, she never acted “being helped up”, but merely got straight up again without apparent effort, which rather ruined the illusion. She was, however, very funny when trying to ape “London manners”. David Fynn was probably Man of the Match – Tony Lumpkin is a very difficult part to play successfully without resorting to “standard country bumpkin” – apparently both Tommy Steele and David Essex have played this part and died completely on stage. Fynn, however, manages to retain all the comedy and still come across as an amiable oaf. I would like to have seen a bit more effort from Stephen Pemberton; his Mr. Hardcastle was terribly one dimensional and it seemed to me as if he was simply bellowing his way through the entire part. Apparently Katherine Kelly is “revelatory” in the role of Kate Hardcastle but I saw nothing particularly special in her acting abilities. However, as she was in Coronation Street for a long time, her acting is a bit like the epithet about the talking dog; its not amazing that the dog talks so well, its amazing that the dog can talk at all.

So, all in all, a solid and worthy production with much to recommend it. If, of course, you like that sort of thing. Unfortunately I can’t bring myself to get exercised one way or the other about it. But you might like it. I have, as has been pointed out several times, been wrong before!

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These are my opinions. I am entitled to them. As you are to yours. If you are going to respond to my opinions, at least make your responses worthwile. Vitriol is pointless. And more importantly, won't get published - so you'll be shouting in the dark.