Get ready to enjoy a Georgian comedy of manners

Northern Broadsides' production of She Stoops to Conquer.  From left, Howard Chadwick as Mr Hardcastle, Jon Trenchard as Tony Lumpkin and Gilly Tompkins as Mrs Hardcastle.
Northern Broadsides' production of She Stoops to Conquer. From left, Howard Chadwick as Mr Hardcastle, Jon Trenchard as Tony Lumpkin and Gilly Tompkins as Mrs Hardcastle.
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It’s a company known for Shakespeare, so why are Northern Broadsides ignoring the Bard this season? Nick Ahad finds out.

Northern Broadsides built its reputation on one specific thing – Shakespeare with a northern voice.

Since its inception 22 years ago, the company has grown, evolved, and while its reputation for that initial impetus remains strong, it has added significantly to its portfolio. While Barrie Rutter is the face of the company, Conrad Nelson has been, if not quite the power behind the throne, certainly a vitally important part in the evolution of Broadsides.

Nelson, musically brilliant and an actor of great power, is at the helm once again of a new Broadsides production – a Georgian 1773 comedy of manners.

She Stoops To Conquer, by Irishman Oliver Goldsmith, tells the story of a wealthy landowner, Mr Hardcastle, who wants his daughter Kate to marry Charles Marlow, the son of a wealthy Londoner – who only seems to relax around women from a lower class.

“There were lots of reasons for us to do it,” says Nelson. “Next year we’re doing two Shakespeares – King Lear and A Winter’s Tale.

“That was partly why this year we are doing a new play (Deborah McAndrew’s A Grand Gesture) and a classic revival with She Stoops.

“I really love revisiting a piece of writing that already exists. New plays are really exciting, but returning to a play that exists has something special about it too.”

When the company was first established there was much hilarity among the London critics about Shakespearean Northerners.

“T’be or not t’be” was what the metropolitan theatrical elite thought they might be getting. They were all stunned by the clarity and power of the Bard performed by those voices. “There’s definitely nothing lethargic about the voices. It is our USP.”

So what is Nelson’s plan for She Stoops to Conquer?

“I don’t want to rip the heart out of it,” says Nelson. “It’s full of great characters. Mrs Hardcastle is great fun – she is Bet Lynch, she’s Hyacinth Bouquet, she’s aspirational and wants to be in London and wants to wear those Vivienne Westwood inspired creations, but just gets it a bit wrong.”

It sounds like Nelson has a strong vision, but this is high comedy written in a certain voice – Goldsmith set it in the West Country - how can it fit in with what the director calls Broadsides’ USP?

“When you see the show usually the posh characters are speaking RP and the lower class generally speaking in that south west burr, Bristolian accents. If we did that with Broadsides, it would be ridiculous.

“The Broadsides’ Kate Hardcastle has one foot in the North and wants to travel to London. It avoids the RP accent that would be, in a Broadsides production, the downfall of the character. It just tells us about her aspiration.

“My personal thoughts are: let’s not look at a play and decide that we already know what it’s about, let’s look at a play and open up the first page and say the lines out loud.

“Saying a play is not the same as directing it. Sometimes when you’re playing, you can find some great things. Having said that, sometimes you have to go back to the text, because ultimately that’s where the idea is for the story.”

So what has he found in this piece?

“This is not a textured play. It’s a full-bellied laugh of a play, you can mine this play and find the depths in it or you can ride it and ride on the laughs.

“This is a new play, because while you might have seen it done before, you’ve never seen it done with this group of actors, directed by me and produced by Northern Broadsides.”

Having watched Nelson at close quarters in a rehearsal room, it is true that he commands respect and does so with an intensity in the way he works. He is also an exceptional actor. The obvious question is, which does he prefer?

“At the minute I’m directing and I like the notion of collecting people together to do some work. I like acting for a different reason. I like to hear the audience response. And I’m not talking about the applause. I mean listening to how they are responding when you are working them through a play and 30 per cent of your ear is on the audience, you’re listening to them to hear what they are doing, and you are ultimately trying to elicit a response.

“Obviously if the audience applauds then that’s very gratifying too, that they have enjoyed their evening.”

It sounds like audiences should be ready to enjoy themselves when they see Nelson’s take on She Stoops to Conquer.