THEATRE / The use of farce in the class struggle: Paul Taylor on a pleasing production by Peter Wood of She Stoops to Conquer, at Chichester

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The Independent Culture
The infuriating farce that is British Rail deprived me of the first 20 minutes or so of the genial farce that is She Stoops to Conquer, newly revived by Peter Wood at Chichester. On the initial scenes, then, this review must be silent - except to say that, judging from the heaps of feathers scattered about the aisles, the cast must have killed quite a lot of time before I arrived massacring the local birdlife. It's good to report that that's all they massacred during the evening - for while Wood's production is not without its dull patches, weak links and touches of forced cuteness (to my taste, the grinning, barefoot urchin who comes on with a little hurdy-gurdy between scenes should swiftly go the way of the birds), these imperfections are somehow sublimated in the overall effect, which is one of mildly qualified delight.

The whole notion of intrinsic class distinction comes in for some comic reconsideration in the farcical confusions of Goldsmith's plot. It's when the two Londoners, Marlow and Hastings, fail to detect that he is well-born that Tony Lumpkin conceives his mischievously vengeful plot of hoodwinking them into believing that the Hardcastle residence is a country inn.

The scenes in which the uppish young bucks treat their baffled, increasingly outraged host as a mere innkeeper are the most disappointing of the production. This is not the fault, however, of Denis Quilley. It's a nice touch that his Mr Hardcastle, all perplexed, rubicund decency, remembers his manners and bows civilly to the toffs however incensed he becomes, for it exacerbates their error in mistaking his gracious familiarity for impudence.

He 'forgets that he's an innkeeper, before he has learned to be a gentleman,' they sneer. Quilley's solid performance quietly reminds you that it is the gentlemanliness of his guests that is being judged. What prevents the scenes from taking off is the lack of any real dash or cutting edge in the supercilious young Londoners (Tom Hollander and Iain Glen) who half-heartedly go through the motions of insolence.

Glen is wonderfully disarming and funny, though, whenever he has to portray the stammering inhibitions of Marlow, the young man who is paralysed by shyness with women of his own class but a bottom-pinching rake with the serving wenches. In the vicinity of Susannah Harker's fine Kate, Glen develops an absurdly bashful-formal pigeon-toed gait, such as you might adopt if ever forced to process through Westminster Abbey naked, and his face virtually implodes with the effort of surmounting his dreadful speech impediment.

To conquer him, Kate has, of course, to 'stoop' and pretend to be a servant. Wood's production gently points up the potential insensitivity of this by showing Kate gleefully trying out her yokel accent and 'bar cant' on her own maid. This latter's response - 'It will do, madam' - is delivered here not as an approving comment on the mistress's skill but with a comically offended impatience, as if to imply that it's scarcely ladylike to impersonate inferiors to their faces with such unreserved gusto. And the production registers the point all the more effectively by making it quickly and on the wing.

Jonathon Morris brings a captivating elfin or faintly leprechaun quality to the part of Tony Lumpkin, the mischief-maker, whose subterfuges drive the play forward. It's an agile, airy performance, a pleasing reminder that Goldsmith's country booby has sometimes, and not so fancifully, been compared with Shakespeare's Puck.

Jean Boht, who plays Morris's mother in Bread, is mummy to him here, too, giving an unexpected wistfulness and dignity, almost, to Mrs Hardcastle's preposterous cravings for London fashions and tittle-tattle. This may well be an instance, though, where Wood's entertaining production is too fair-minded for its own good.

'She Stoops to Conquer' continues in repertory until 3 October at the Chichester Festival Theatre (0243 781312).

(Photograph omitted)