She Stoops to Conquer – National Theatre 7th February 2012

Oliver Goldsmith:   She Stoops to Conquer

My goodness, it takes me back….

I first came across Goldsmith in the second form of Presentation College, Reading. In those days part and parcel of English Literature was learning some poetry by rote. And the Schoolmaster from Goldsmith’s Deserted Village was a favourite of pedagogy. Those masters who most loved it were often the least able to teach…which would have greatly amused Goldsmith had he lived to endure such methods of teaching.

I imagine it was those lines:

And still they gazed and still their wonder grew;That one small head could carry all he knew…

That flattered to deceive. That same year (1966 I guess) the school drama society put on its production of She Stoops to Conquer. Unlike most of my classmates, who were fiercely bored, I rather enjoyed it. But last night’s production would I think have pleased even the harder to please of my classmates.

This production of play was generously staged and the sets felt and looked right. The links between scenes and acts were provided by using the cast to sing a simple harmony – sometimes with kitchen and other domestic odds and ends as percussion instruments – it was clever – and it sped matters along – which always helps when there is a coherent links in these comedies of manners as they can sometimes seem artificial and too epigrammatic for modern taste.  The music was frisky too but not too intrusive. The costumes superb but two too few for the men…the humour in their talk of dressing for dinner and appearing dressed in the same outfits all through…is lost entirely..and seems entirely odd given that Kate’s dressing down to dinner to please her father’s tastes make the very point about clothes depicting class that informs that play’s witty plot….at night in evening dress Kate and Marlow might indeed superficially belong to separate worlds…

Goldsmith’s observation of the distinctions between the manners of town and country – London and the periphery wasn’t exactly new territory for playwrights to explore but seldom has it been better or more illuminatingly explored than by Goldsmith’s sharp eye and sharper pen. He crisply derides the vain-gloriousness of snobbery personified by Mrs Hardcastle’s social climbing. Her second husband the long suffering Mr Hardcastle whom the two London gentlemen (Marlow and Hastings) mistake for an Inn Keeper is perhaps the model of all military bores with his stories of Prince Eugene and the duke of Marlborough.

It is their daughter Kate who stoops to conquer the heart of the tongue-tied hero Marlow. Kate is none other than Katherine Kelly fresh from Coronation Street. and fresh as a daisy, she gives a fine account of our heroine…sharp and sharp-witted whilst Harry Hadden-Paton gives us a Marlow that oscillates perfectly between the dumb dolt with a lady and the smooth flirt with a lass. Kate’s deceptions both lead him on hilariously whilst she talks him around.

The subplot between the other two lovers – Constance (Cush Jumbo) and Hastings ( John Heffernan) is elegantly managed and as elegantly played. This Hastings is foppish-toff to the manor born and Cush jumbo gives us fluent and charming Constance.

But the night belongs to Mrs Hardcastle (Sophie Thompson) with her plotting to keep Constance from her inheritance; her futile attempts to force constance to marry her idle son from her first marriage, Toby Lumpkin, (delightfully played by David Fynn) to keep Constance’s money securely in the family; and her indecorously ending in the horse-pond in her own back-garden – believing herself to be lost in far flung woods and her surprised husband to be a highwayman – hers are a wonderful series of comic turns beautifully turned in this production. And though she’s hardly loveable behind the brittle vanities and social insecurities one can see in Sophie Thompson’s performance something else essentially loveable and that makes her relationship with Steve Pemberton’s nicely judged Mr Hardcastle warming… their relationship feels comfortable, like of old shoe, and therefore real, like an old marriage.

I also loved the scene in the Inn….and the scene between Mr Hardcastle and his servants – the master drilling his bemused and confused servants in the manners of society in Town. Goldsmith sees all and spares none…it’s all faithfully observed and all painfully true to life..and the more comic for so being….

But I had some niggles since it seemed to me as if some of the cuts in dialogue cut a bit too much and sometimes the running verbal jokes became cut short and a bit lost. The cuts were substituted with some clowning that the audience liked well enough but was to my mind just a bit too vulgar. That’s maybe my snobbery coming through – but to my closed historian’s mind an Inn-keeper’s daughter in the eighteenth century would not necessarily have been quite a trollop like say Doll Tearsheet or indeed Mistress Quickly would certainly have been in London in the sixteenth century. And in losing the fine degrees of these class distinctions we lost some of the finer distinctions Goldsmith draws linguistically – all thrust over board and perished in the common seas……

Still it was great to see this play again and see it played with verve and enthusiasm. This play and others of its ilk once formed the backbone of repertory theatre…particularly with say The Rivals and A School for Scandal and The Importance of Being Earnest. These classy and classic comedies caught more than the humour of their time: they were for all time. Their characters speak directly to the frailties that we live with; live in and in our short time, live through. They poke fun at us and we are all, all the better for having ourselves made fools of…

It’s a great night out and if any of my old classmates come across this…go see it guys…you’ll laugh all night… I promise. Below are a few tasters of a film of the play I’ve located amongst many less flattering clips on YouTube …




This entry was posted in Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.