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SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER
My husband and I have been fans of the actor Colin Baker for many years and since 1997, we try to see him in at least one play a year. This has led to us seeing him in a wide variety of performances and genres including two pantomimes, Corpse, Dracula, HMS Pinafore and Bedroom Farce. This year, he is touring in She Stoops to Conquer, which added another dimension to our theatre-going experience, when we went to see him in it at the Theatre Royal, Bath earlier this week.
The play was written by Oliver Goldsmith and was first performed in London in 1773. (Thanks to Wikipedia for that bit of info!) It is a period piece and a comedy, but is plenty more besides. I certainly don't think I've seen anything else quite like it in the thirty-odd years I've been going to the theatre.
The show we saw began with a few tunes played by the three-piece band that perform during the play. The music is contemporary to the 18th century setting of the play and I thought it was beautiful, as well as being catchy and rather folksy. After this, the play itself begins with a rather surprising twist, which I won't reveal here, as it would spoil it for anyone who is yet to see it.
When we start to watch the play itself, we are introduced to Warwickshire in 1773 and the country mansion of Mr and Mrs Hardcastle, played by Colin Baker and Liza Goddard, who were married to each other in real life in the 1970s. The plot unveils itself.
The Hardcastle's daughter Kate (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) is to meet Charles Marlow (Matthew Douglas) - the son of Mr Hardcastle's friend - in the hope that they will develop a romantic attachment and get married. Marlow and his friend George Hastings (Matthew Burgess) arrive in the village at the local pub - the Three Pigeons Tavern - and ask for directions to the Hardcastle's place. But Tony Lumpkin (Mrs Hardcastle's son from her first marriage, played by Jonathan Broadbent) is at the pub and although he does indeed direct them to the right place, he mischievously tells them it is an inn and the innkeeper has delusions of being rich and important.
Arriving at the Hardcastle's house, the first of the 'comedy of errors' presents itself. Marlow treats the mansion as an inn and his prospective father-in-law as an innkeeper, leading Mr Hardcastle to decide Marlow would not be a suitable suitor for his daughter. But Kate meets a different kind of Marlow and is determined to learn more...
The plot itself sounds complicated, but watching it, it is easy to follow and is very cleverly done and very funny. It is a fast-moving story too with lots of action, so we were never bored, even though the running time (including the interval) was almost three hours.
The first thing that struck us was the set. We go to the Theatre Royal, Bath quite a lot and this set was unusual, as it appeared the set had been placed on top of the usual stage so as to create a new flooring which curved inward slightly in the middle.
The set - which became the main room of the mansion, the pub or the garden, depending on dressing - consisted of a wooden floor of a large room, with two doors either side and three doors at the back. All of these doors worked and were used regularly to great effect. Beyond the back doors, there are two staircases visible and these worked too, giving the audience the feel of a spacious house.
Any extra furniture needed in the scenes was added when necessary and in-between scene changes, this was carried on and off by the cast members who doubled (or trebled) as servants, musicians and pub drinkers. This seemed to be a clever device, as the characters were present in both scenes.
The costumes were stunning and looked just as if they'd come from a big BBC period drama on Sunday evenings. The women's dresses were especially beautiful, big creations with bustles and layers of fabric. While not being an expert in 18th century fashion, it certainly felt authentic to me and helped me get into the story easily.
Certain characters were dressed in the same colours too, which seemed to symbolise their relationships with each other (useful if the audience got lost, I suppose!). So Charles and Kate were both in green, while George Hastings and his lover Constance Neville (Annie Hemingway) were both dressed in red.
In my opinion, all the cast were excellent. It is an energetic play with a lot going on and told in a language which - like Shakespeare or Chaucer - takes a few minutes to get into. It is because of the actors themselves that the meaning of their words is soon communicated to the audience and after a short time, we were able to understand it all well.
The two established actors of the piece were Colin Baker and Liza Goddard, of course, and both were wonderful in their parts. But the talent of the younger cast members shone through too, especially Dorothea Myer-Bennett who was great to watch as Kate, conveying her frustrations with Marlow is sighing asides to the audience. Marlow and Hastings were engaging characters too and played really well by the two Matthews - Douglas and Burgess.
The star of the play amongst the younger men though was undoubtedly Jonathan Broadbent as Tony Lumpkin. Admittedly, he has some of the best lines in the script, but he also expressed the personality of the character brilliantly with a lopsided grin and endearing impish charm. I would love to see him in something else in the future, as he definitely has talent.
I wasn't really sure what to expect when we went to see She Stoops to Conquer, but I was extremely impressed by it. I loved the music, which really gave a period feel to it. (Besides the instrumental pieces, both Tony and Kate sing solo songs, although it is by no means a musical.) The costumes, hair and make up added to the authenticity and made the language accessible and a few scenes in, I was relishing it like I do Shakespeare or Austen.
The cast were superb and the plot engaging, fascinating and regularly laugh-out-loud funny. We thoroughly enjoyed it and came out talking about it, discussing its merits. It is a play I would love to see again and I have since looked on Amazon and found there is a DVD of another performance available, a different cast but one filmed at the same theatre and I would like to buy this to see a different production. I would also like to read the play, to pick up on the parts that went by too quick to absorb.
To complete a wonderful evening, we met Colin Baker afterwards and had a chat with him. He knows us by now and he is such a brilliant man, who always has time for you and is happy to discuss your views on the plays he is in. Needless to say, we told him we loved it.
Starring Liza Goddard and Colin Baker. The play revolves round the adventures of a young man who is painfully shy with ladies but positively cock-sure with barmaids; of his intended, who is a young lady prepared to play the barmaid to get her man; and of a practical joker whose wits are sharpened beyond compare when he finds himself heading towards the altar