WHAT an inspiration of Lindsay Posner’s to update Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy She Stoops to Conquer to the 1920s, and how brilliantly thought-through is the current production, opening the Bath 2015 summer season.
Simon Higlett’s marvellously recognisable set brings the Hardcastle family home and the Three Pigeons pub into Coward’s Hay Fever days, with Marlow and Hastings taking a leaf out of the book of Wilde’s Algie and Earnest.
The story sits perfectly in the period. Tony Lumpkin – a terrific stage debut by standup comic Harry Michell – is the pampered son of upwardly-mobile old flapper Mrs Hardcastle, beautifully enunciated and mincingly moved by Anita Dobson. He bumbles his way nightly to the pub, playing practical jokes on all around, and exasperating his step-father. Fortunately for Mr Hardcastle, he has a devoted daughter, Kate, who has readily agreed to wear her fashionable gowns in the day, and her country house-dress at night.
When the lumpen Tony meets London lads-about-town Marlow and Hastings in The Three Pigeons, he takes on a Mummerset accent and directs them to his family home, telling them it’s an inn with a jumped-up landlord.
Marlow is sent by his father, an old friend of Hardcastle, to court Kate, but while he’s a dog with the servant wenches, he’s a tongue-tied oaf with women of his own class. Hastings is in love with Constance Neville, Kate’s wealthy cousin, who Mrs H intends to marry Tony. Tony and Constance loathe each other.
The scene is set for marvellous misunderstandings and hilarious, and doomed, plotting.
It’s hard to imagine a more enjoyable, or more charmingly performed, production of this play.
It is very easy for the senior Hardcastles to slide into pantomime, but Michael Pennington makes a loveable, poignant and whimsical Hardcastle, with Anita Dobson’s foolishly shrewish but devoted wife. You do see why he loves her, even though she is so daft.
Philip White, a familiar face on stage in Shaftesbury, makes his professional stage debut as one of the rugby team.
She Stoops to Conquer continues until Saturday 18th July, and it’s a perfect summer play for all.
Photographs by Manuel Harlan