She Stoops To Conquer- Bath Theatre Royal, Bath

Anita Dobson (Mrs Hardcastle) and Jack Holden (Hastings) in She Stoops to Conquer
Anita Dobson (Mrs Hardcastle) and Jack Holden (Hastings) in She Stoops to Conquer
© Manuel Harlan

Originally published on Whats On Stage 

The Bath summer season, always one of the highlights of the South West theatre calendar, starts with a version of Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops To Conquer that’s a good fit for the time of year: light, frothy and unchallenging fare.

Plopping this piece, first performed in 1773, into the heart of the roaring 1920s, cocktail dresses and Charlestons to the fore, makes it a perfect fit for the stately audience of the Theatre Royal but Lindsay Posner’s production doesn’t scratch much beyond the glittering surface; it’s all style over substance.

Goldsmith’s play has probably the tightest plot of the Restoration period, condensed into one tumultuous evening during which London gents Marlow and Hastings mistake a familial country home for an inn. The usual Restoration tropes – disguise, mistaken identity, scandalous society women trying to raise their stock and ultimately love overcoming all obstacles – ensues.

Marlow – an impressive professional debut by RADA graduate Hubert Burton who finds a dash of Bertie Wooster in his schizophrenic turn – can’t bring himself to talk to ladies of good stock but is more than happy to cavort with the bar maids and servant girls of the local taverns. Finding himself in the presence of Catherine Steadman’s hockey stick ra-ra Kate Hardcastle his face crimsons and he can’t raise his gaze from his shoes but encountering her in disguise as a country girl he is soon declaring his undying love and looks ready to consummate their relationship on the living room floor.

It all takes a while to get going but by the second half it is at least revving even if there’s a nagging feeling that the cast aren’t quite putting their foot to the pedal. The ever reliable Michael Pennington (soon to be seen in the Kenneth Branagh season) takes the acting honours as Mr Hardcastle, sent into apoplectic fury as he is mistaken for a too literal master of the house whilst Harry Mitchell’s Tony Lupkin is an overbearing, oversized toddler who steals pretty much every scene he’s in.

Anita Dobson as the scheming Mrs Hardcastle, a gargoyle whose main focus is upward advancement in society and whose delusions of grandeur can’t hide insecurities, is still finding her feet, while there is a surprising lack of memorable set pieces in the normally reliable Posner’s production.

Andrew Hilton and his company Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory recently delved deep into another Restoration hit The School For Scandal and in the process discovered a play far more interesting and subversive than its witty wordplay would suggest. Posner is content to let the plot and the language take effect and whilst this is an enjoyable place to be it never stretches further than that. It’s left to Simon Higglett’s stunning revolving set that takes us from home to bar to moonlit garden to really provide the reason for investing in a ticket.

She Stoops to Conquer runs at Bath Theatre Royal until 18 July

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