“Pardon me madam. I was always willing to be amused. The folly of most people is rather an object of mirth than uneasiness.”
Restoration comedies fit the Theatre Royal Bath with the snugness of centuries-old comfort but even with Lindsay Posner updating She Stoops To Conquer to the 1920s, it’s hard not to feel that there’s something inherently dusty about this austere venue. Audiences in London have been spoiled for choice with witty reinventions of the genre – Jessica Swale’s brilliant revisionist work on shows like The Rivals and The Busy Body have enlivened the Southwark Playhouse and the National has had raucous takes on The Beaux’ Stratagem (still running) and this very Oliver Goldsmith play effervescently directed by Jamie Lloyd.
But Posner ‘s direction has a near-fatal lugubriousness in the first half which, already weighed down with a considerable amount of scene-setting and expositionary dialogue, makes for very hard going. Sad to say, things are just dull for too long and nowhere near light-heartedly entertaining enough to do justice to this cracking comedy. The tropes of mismatched love affairs, disguised paramours, mistaken identities and wonderfully ambitious women are all present and correct – London gents Marlow and Hastings mistaking the Hardcastles’ country pile for a country inn and have to go a country mile around the houses to undo the damage they inflict and ensure love wins the day.
Hubert Burton and Jack Holden work a Jeeves and Wooster vibe as the hapless pair but never really exploit it to its fullest and in the case of the former, crucially lack the real charm a romantic lead needs to get us truly invested, Catherine Steadman’s Kate – the daughter of the house – is stronger, especially when working her way into Marlow’s affections by affecting the role of a serving girl (because he’s too shy to talk to a proper lady, natch) though she is clearly better than him. But Harry Michell’s Tony Lumpkin (a stage debutant), the mischievous manipulator of events has an uncontrolled energy that he’ll need to learn to better manage.
Michael Pennington’s gruff Mr Hardcastle is almost a saving grace as his impotent rage as being mistaken for master of the house is always fun to observe, and the always watchable Anita Dobson is good value for money as the scheming Mrs Hardcastle, if not quite the most memorable of performances from her. Simon Higlett’s design makes good use of the revolve to push along this production as it creaks towards the better second half but all in all, it’s a rather uninspired and unexciting piece of theatre.