She Stoops to Conquer

Oliver Goldsmith
Nottingham Playhouse
(2010)

Production photo by Robert Day

Lucy Pitman-Wallace's previous productions for Nottingham Playhouse were tragedies and had mixed receptions: I found her revival of Seamus Heaney's The Burial at Thebes solid but depressingly gloomy and her Macbeth spiritless. So is she able to conquer comedy with Oliver Goldsmith's classic?

She's used the creative team of designer Jess Curtis and composer Mick Sands who worked with her on The Burial at Thebes - but in this reviewer's opinion they again achieve only partial success.

The programme notes tell us that this new production sticks resolutely to its 18th century setting. That means lavish, colourful costumes - but a set that looks amateurishly out-of-place.

Pitman-Wallace says her team wanted to create the pastoral idyll of Hardcastle Hall where most of the action of the play takes place. They found "some wonderful naive-art pictures of livestock painted in the 18th century. The owners were so proud of their sheep that the artists painted the animals much bigger than everything else, even the houses. These paintings became the inspiration for the backdrop of the set design." But I found them a distraction and not in the least appealing.

She Stoops to Conquer features young Charles Marlow, who's considered an apt suitor for Kate Hardcastle, setting out for her family's home with his friend George Hastings. On the journey they stop off at the Three Pigeons pub for directions. The Hardcastles' son Tony Lumpkin plays a practical joke on them by telling them they have a long way to go and will have to stay overnight at an inn. He points them in the direction of Hardcastle Hall.

The travellers are taken in and believe Hardcastle, who's expecting Marlow's arrival, is the innkeeper and Kate a barmaid. Hardcastle is convinced Marlow is inappropriate for his daughter but Kate continues the deception so that she can size up Marlow's true character.

Ellie Beaven earns praise for her spirited portrayal of Kate, effortlessly turning from the elegant squire's daughter into a common serving wench and back again.

Edmund Kingsley also excels as Marlow, his confident manner with the barmaid contrasting with his tongue-tied inability to converse with Kate as her normal self.

Chris Nayak enthusiastically throws himself into the role of Tony whose tantrums are a mere part of his trivial outlook on life; and there's good support from Joan Moon as the put-upon Mrs Hardcastle and Rina Mahoney as Constance, the Hardcastles' ward.

On the debit side, Peter Basham gives a very understated portrayal of Marlow's travelling companion George Hastings; Mike Burnside often mumbles his lines as Hardcastle; and some of the actors look uncomfortable when they pick up stringed instruments to play between scenes. It might have been press-night nerves but they looked ill at ease.

Pitman-Wallace said she found the play very funny when she read it; in my experience this version is mildly amusing, although I have to admit I was out of step with the majority of the audience.

It's a workmanlike production - but there's not enough sparkle for it to be a total conquest.

"She Stoops to Conquer" runs until September 18th

Reviewer: Steve Orme