Fringe Box



Stage Dragon: Stooping to Conquer While Ducking the Rain

Published on: 22 Jun, 2021
Updated on: 22 Jun, 2021

Self-deceiving and over-the-top: Sarah Gobran as lady of the house, Mrs Hardcastle. Image Matt Pereira

By Alice Fowler

Warm-hearted performances on languorous summers’ evenings have long been the Guildford Shakespeare Company’s stock in trade. 

Pity the poor GSC then, that early performances of their post-pandemic comeback, She Stoops To Conquer, should take place amid wind, rain and temperatures so unseasonal that its audiences have been wrapped in blankets, gloves and woolly hats.

If anyone can overcome such obstacles, however, it is the GSC. Its version of Oliver Goldsmith’s enduring comedy, first performed in 1773, is set in the country house world of PG Wodehouse, between the wars, where characters say ‘Toodle pip’ and the chasm between the classes gapes wider than today.

Anyone for tea? Rachel Summers as Mrs Hardcastle’s niece, Constance. Image Matt Pereira

As with so many GSC productions, the play revolves around a case of mistaken identity: in this case, not of a person, but of a house. At Hardcastle Hall in the West Country, Mr Hardcastle (Robert Maskell) intends his daughter Kate to marry Charles Marlow, a gentleman from London, the son an old friend.

En route to Hardcastle Hall, young Marlow is tricked into believing the house is in fact an inn, with Mr Hardcastle its landlord and his wife, the colourful, self-deceiving Mrs Hardcastle, its landlady. Cue a comedy of manners in which the yawning gap between the social classes, as well as between the generations, is excoriatingly exposed.

Hanging on: James Sheldon as Charles Marlow, both stutteringly shy and stunningly arrogant. Image Matt Pereira

James Sheldon’s Charles Marlow is a young David Cameron-esque figure, full of hapless old Etonian charm. Together with his friend and sidekick George Hastings (an on-form Tom Richardson), he treats old Mr Hardcastle with appalling rudeness: interrupting his war stories, taking his chair and demanding to see the ‘bill of fare’ for supper.

A man with a secret: Tom Richardson as Marlow’s friend, George Hastings. Image Matt Pereira

Into this delicious deceit steps Mr Hardcastle’s daughter, Kate (a spirited Natasha Rickman). Kate inadvertently exposes Marlow’s great weakness: that while he can lavish charm on “a barmaid or college bed maker”. when faced with a well-bred young lady he is reduced to a stuttering wreck. Taking a shine to him nonetheless, Kate decides to “stoop to conquer” by pretending to be the inn’s barmaid, thus enabling Marlow to be at ease.

Twists and turns ensue, many instigated by the mischievous Tony Lumpkin (Corey Montague-Sholay), Mrs Hardcastle’s son by her first marriage, who is reluctantly engaged to Kate’s cousin Constance (Rachel Summers). GSC co-founder Matt Pinches is kept busy in a variety of roles, while fellow co-founder Sarah Gobran has fun as Mrs Hardcastle, perhaps the least sympathetic character of all.

Director Tom Littler and designer Neil Irish make good use of the Castle grounds, with the bandstand doubling as an inn and Hardcastle Hall itself; from which, in one memorable scene, curtains and an armchair are hurled in fury.

This is a high-octane production, with sequins, Flapper dresses, rustic accents and over-the-top buffoonery aplenty. On a balmy summer’s evening – of which we must hope for many before July 3 – it will sparkle even more.

‘She Stoops To Conquer’ runs at Guildford Castle bandstand until July 3. For details of this, and the GSC’s second summer show, As You Like It’, see 

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