She Stoops to Conquer, Theatre Royal Bath, review: ‘delightful’
10 Jul 2015 By Dominic Cavendish
Brought boldly into the 1920s, Oliver Goldsmith’s enduring comedy deserved louder laughs, says Dominic Cavendish
4 out of 5 stars
There’s something strangely modern about Oliver Goldsmith’s enduring 1773 comedy, in so far as it expresses (and exaggerates) the insecurities of the male psyche. Are there any men brave enough to admit they recognise themselves in the anti-heroic figure of Charles Marlow, who is tongue-tied with women of his own – educated, refined – class but becomes quite the lusty lad when consorting with forward lasses from what had yet to be called a working-class background?
It’s not simply a case of the mask of civility being ripped off to reveal the beast within. Rather than approving or disapproving of Marlow’s shortcomings (apparently Goldsmith’s own) the genius of the piece is that it casts a wry but generous eye on his foibles. And it makes them come good, via a device of high contrivance. Having been gulled into thinking that the country house of the woman he has come to court – Kate Hardcastle – is an inn, Marlow is brought out of himself by Kate’s impersonation of an ordinary serving wench. Despising his inbred timidity, she releases him from it – she ‘stoops to conquer’.
While you can imagine a radical update of the play fit for our feminist times, Lindsay Posner serves both it, and the required levity of the Theatre Royal Bath’s summer season, well by bringing it as boldly far, but no further, than the 1920s. Instead of fusty wigs and foppery, we get a world of plus-fours, gramophones and Charlestons with Union Jack bunting and stag heads on the walls as Simon Higlett’s delightful design spins from the Three Pigeons pub to the pile to which the Wooster-ish Marlow and his snooty mate Hastings repair.
Rosy-cheeked Hubert Burton has superb comic timing as the deluded Marlow, toe-curlingly disdainful towards old Hardcastle, the man he mistakes for an inn-keeper – a winning study in barely contained explosive fury from Michael Pennington. Sure to go far too, Catherine Steadman switches likeably and effortlessly between cool, high-born Kate and her warm, West Country alter-ego.
There’s spirited support from Harry Michell as Hardcastle’s oafish step-son, Jack Holden as the hoity-toity Hastings and Charlotte Brimble as his furtive belle Constance. Last but not least, Anita Dobson acquits herself admirably in the unflattering role of Hardcastle’s fusspot wife – even ending up on all fours in a muddied dress. On the opening night her real-life hubby, Queen’s Brian May, was there to lend supportive titters. They all deserve far louder laughs, though.