She Stoops to Conquer is a delightful romp that still has plenty to say about class and social divisions. It’s been almost thirty years since the Arts Club Theatre Company has staged this play. After watching this deliciously funny and high-spirited comedy you wonder why they waited so long. Written in 1773 by the infamous playwright and man of letters Oliver Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer crackles with wit and energy.
Like all good comedies of manners, there are lashings of mistaken identities and intricate conceits in this play. Charles Marlow is a dashing young gentleman suffering from a specific sort of social anxiety. He is able to flirt the underskirts off lower class women but is embarrassingly bashful around women of his own station. Unfortunately he has been sent by his father, with his friend George Hastings in tow, to the estate of Mr Hardcastle to woo Hardcastle’s daughter Kate. A prank is played on the two young men making them believe Hardcastle’s house is a luxury inn. Meanwhile Kate presents herself as a lowly barmaid in order to lower Marlow’s sheepish defences.
What unfurls is a hilarious exploration at how people behave depending on who they think they are talking to. Goldsmith was well used to moving between different social strata. He was born in Ireland to a clergyman and spent most of his youth tramping across Europe and living in poverty. He eventually secured a place in the literary inner circle with such luminaries as Dr Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke. Goldsmith was always laughed at though for his provincial manners and unpolished accent. As an insider/outsider Goldsmith was in the perfect position to use his talent to dissect social conventions. This is not to say he was trying to provoke a revolution more that he enjoyed poking fun at society. Although the play is over 200 years old it still resonates with today. Don’t we still adjust how we present ourselves depending on whether we are downing beers in a dive bar or trying to get a table at the best restaurant in town?
The staging of the play was almost the highlight for me. Kudos must go to set designer David Roberts for creating such a charming world. A hand-painted map as a backdrop helped to create the vivid sense of place. The servants assembled the set to transform it from a dark wood to a sumptuous living room. The servants also acted as a chorus and would break into song like a group of travelling troubadours. In the lovely surroundings of the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage you could almost imagine yourself at the original staging of the play.
A hefty amount of the laughs came from Mrs. Hardcastle played by Leslie Jones. Mrs.Hardcastle is a larger than life character and Jones attacked the role with just the right amount of over-acting. She is a screeching, whirling, mama bear that you would not like to cross paths with. Luc Roderique as Marlow deftly moved from slick lothario to a tongue-tied hopeless case. Much of the humour came from the physical comedy and clever actions of the cast. Jay Hindle as Hastings and Melissa Oei as Constance Neville were particularly good as the love sick couple. Hindle brought out the preening side of Hastings who seems almost as enraptured with his gold outfit as he is with Constance. Jennifer Mawhinney enlivened Kate as the independent and determined character that she is. In the cut throat world of the marriage market Kate sees potential in meek Marlow and uses her ingenuity to coax him out of his shell.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable night and should delight anyone with an appreciation for razor sharp with and screwball comedies. She Stoops to Conquer is running until November 18th. Purchase your tickets here.