Northern Broadsides may have found its perfect text in Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. From the play’s first lines, as Howard Chadwick’s Hardcastle pours good-hearted scorn on the London affectations espoused by his wife and daughter, this joyful and exuberant production draws attention to its and the company’s own provincialism while reclaiming and contesting the values of a metropolitan centre.
As is customary for the company, all the cast play instruments, creating a playful live score throughout the show that encompasses Mozart, nursery rhymes and drinking songs. The cabaret aspect is led by Jon Trenchard, shifting between the character of Tony Lumpkin and a more general role as compère. Trenchard brilliantly reads the oafish, developmentally arrested Tony as Elizabethan clown. He steps in and out of the play world to accompany the action on piano and flute, disguises himself as a wide range of cloaked, rasping and camp figures, and takes responsibility for stage managing the less self-aware characters. Trenchard’s slight stature exaggerates his social impotence, most notably as Lauryn Redding’s Constance picks him up and swings him bodily from side to side, rendering this central figure both controlling and controlled.
By concentrating its focus around Tony, Conrad Nelson’s production both makes sense of the play’s climactic revelation of Tony’s own right to self-determination and establishes the play as opera, allowing its scenes to be read as choreographed vignettes, even to the extent of Hastings and Constance’s wooing scenes being amalgamated with sections of The Magic Flute, a set piece concluding with acknowledgement of the audience’s applause as if a cabaret. The skill here is in the production’s careful management of the tone – characters are heightened and dressed in primary colours but never cartoonish; situations are contrived but never ludicrous.
Oliver Gomm plays Marlow, the young man tricked into thinking his father’s noble friend is an innkeeper, as a Jekyll-and-Hyde split personality. His utter disdain for Hardcastle, shown as he hurls his overcoat onto his host’s head and begins frowningly to rearrange the antique furniture of the ‘inn’, contrasts sharply with his embarrassment before Hannah Edwards’s Kate Hardcastle, the kind of woman with whom he is unable to converse. Gomm shuffles, stutters and retches, evoking comically his pathological inability to talk. Conversely, when Kate dresses down and puts on a scouse accent while pretending to be a housemate,
Gomm struts, using his long legs to stalk and entrap his prey. Marlow becomes, in this production, a finely contrasted performer, whose falsities are the main targets of satire.
The cast is uniformly strong. Gilly Tompkins’s Mrs Hardcastle exemplifies the production’s mockery of falseness as she veers between an affected London voice and her true, deep and rasping Mancunian roars when she forgets herself. Decorum is, on this isolated estate, a fragile state, and one of the production’s pleasures is watching Tompkins unravel slowly until her final bedraggled appearance following her dip in the horse pond. Edwards takes the handling of different social states even further in her easy shifts between roles and her repartee with the audience, showing even more clearly how easily social performances can be moulded to immediate purpose. And Alan McMahon’s cross-dressed maid steals the show repeatedly with knowing glances at the play’s absurdities.
Northern Broadsides offer an intuitive, entertaining and faithful rendition of the play that uses its joie de vive to force home its ridicule of affectation coded as southern and metropolitan. From the outstanding beehive wigs to the dated anecdotes of Hardcastle himself, Nelson’s production takes delight in the absurd and excessive while offering a tribute to plain-speaking, plain-clothed values, coded in this production as defiantly Northern.