Surely there can be nothing better, nor more quintessentially British, than open air theatre in the summertime – especially when accompanied by fine weather, a picnic hamper and long daylight hours – although theatre goers in this part of the world know that it is always sensible to apply some insect repellent in place of eau de cologne, as a precautionary measure!
Wimborne Drama Productions (WDP) has a rich history of staging amateur theatre stretching back to 1932, with an annual calendar normally comprising three plays. For the sixth time, this includes an outdoor production in the picturesque grounds and lakeside setting of historic Deans Court, the lovely home of the Hanham family.
When first performed in 1773, Oliver Goldsmith’s witty and warm-hearted comedy She Stoops To Conquer bucked the then fashion for sentimental drama, where tears outweighed laughter. The play is renowned for celebrating laughter and also for honouring the honest virtues of country folk and their simple ways over the snobbery of the fashionable town society – perhaps something that still resonates today! She Stoops To Conquer is now considered to be one of the great farcical comedies of all time and a milestone for 18th century British Theatre and it is an absolute pleasure and privilege to see She Stoops To Conquer being performed locally by a talented company of actors in such delightful surroundings.
The plot revolves around contrived deceptions: Hardcastle, a country squire, is expecting the arrival of Marlow, the son of an aristocratic friend he’d like to marry his daughter Kate. However, his mischievous stepson, Tony Lumpkin, convinces Marlow that Hardcastle is nothing other than an uppity innkeeper, with illusions of grandeur, and Kate is a barmaid.
It transpires that Marlow is painfully shy with women of his own class, but much more forward and something of a flirt among working-class girls similar to ‘plain’ Kate. Despite Hardcastle’s obvious indignation, Kate’s liking for Marlow gathers pace as she conceals her true identity and ‘stoops to conquer’.
Added to the confusion is a subplot in which Marlow’s friend Hastings is secretly engaged to be married to Kate’s cousin Constance, and they plan to elope. Standing in their way is Constance’s aunt and guardian, the vain Mrs Hardcastle, whose plan is for her niece to marry her indulged son Tony Lumpkin (from her first marriage), so that an inheritance of valuable jewels stays in the family.
Often with open air productions the staging can be a little sparse with much left to the imagination of the audience, but the WDP production team have managed to build a first-rate period set to give the appearance of the drawing room of a manor house. The clever use of mobile screens converts the stage to the inside of a Public House and enables outdoor scenes to be presented with a fair degree of authenticity. The period costumes are historically accurate and fitting for each of the parts. The excellent sound system bellows out baroque music before the commencement of proceedings and during the interval, helping to create the right ambience for the play. The actors wear individual microphones which, even in breezy conditions, enables all of the dialogue to be heard.
With WDP’s pedigree, it is not surprising to find that the ensemble cast of some 18 players have an impressive record of performance roles between them and everyone delivers their lines with real proficiency and acting skill. Timing is all important in any comedy and the cast convey the funny lines with aplomb, prompting regular ripples of genuine laughter and enjoyment from the audience. As with all ensemble productions, it can be unfair to single out any one of the actors for particular mention and praise, but it would be equally unfair to not at least mention the performers of the lead roles: Paul Dodman (Squire Hardcastle), Chrissie Neal (Mrs Hardcastle), Michelle Barter (Kate Hardcastle), Bethany Barfoot (Constance Neville), James Bourner (Tony Lumpkin), Sam Moulton (Charles Marlow) and Rob Cording-Cook (George Hastings). Each and every one of the supporting cast are also terrific. There are simply no weak performances here – this is amateur dramatics at its best.
During each summer there are countless open air productions of Shakespeare’s plays being performed throughout the country but, as wonderful as many of them may be, She Stoops To Conquer is a refreshing alternative and is guaranteed to raise a smile. WDP will be performing this open air production in the grounds of Deans Court until 30 June.