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A well-looking house, antique but creditable.

After a long and tedious journey by stagecoach from London, Mr Marlow and Mr Hastings arrive at Squire Hardcastle’s house.  Mr Marlow has come to court Miss Hardcastle, at his father’s insistence, whilst Mr Hastings has come to see his sweetheart, Constance, in the hope that he can persuade her to elope with him to France.

Thanks to Tony Lumpkin’s misinformation and mischief, they believe the house to be an inn and, when he finally makes an appearance, they take Mr Hardcastle for the inn-keeper.

As if that were not bad enough, they immediately make themselves at home and “take possession” of Mr Hardcastle’s favourite armchair by the fireside! Outrageous!

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They discuss Mr Marlow unaccountable bashfulness when “in the company of women of reputation”  Marlow explains that his life has mainly been spent in a college or an inn, “in seclusion from that lovely part of creation that chiefly teach men confidence.”

In order to explain his disabling shyness when confronted with ladies of ‘quality‘ and to excuse his predatory behaviour towards women of an inferior social class,  he goes on: “I don’t know that I was ever familiarly acquainted with a single modest woman, apart from my mother, But among females of another class you know…”

(Editor’s note:  seen through modern eyes, Marlow is little short of a monster. He’s a class-ridden, potential rapist who has no thoughts of the impact of his actions on anyone but himself.  During the rehearsals, I pointed out to Marlow that if, in real life, he were to have shown any interest  in my daughter, I would cheerfully have stabbed him! Georgian England was clearly a different time with different mores, though some might argue that not much has changed. But, hey, it’s post-restoration comedy not gritty social realism.)

Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of their genial host.

 

 

Servants’ training.

Whether or not Mr Hardcastle is a Yorkshireman is not made explicit in She Stoops to Conquer. What is made clear, however, is that he intends to incur no unnecessary expense in preparing for the impending visit to his house by his old friend, Sir Charles and the two young suitors, Mr Marlow and Mr Hastings.

Act Two starts with Mr Hardcastle, fully bewigged in anticipation of company, trying to make some, albeit limited, progress in the training of his non-too-bright servants.

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“I hope you’re all perfect in the table exercises that I’ve been teaching you these three days.  You all know you posts and your places and can show that you have been used to good company.”

Rather than spending money on employing proper servants, the over-talkative Diggory has been “taken from the barn,”  the shepherd, Ned has been brought off the meadow, Susan, the milkmaid has been brought in from the cowshed and Roger has been “advanced from the plough.”  Much training is necessary.

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Diggory, in particular, takes a deal of training, perhaps because of his propensity, like his master, to divert himself with stories of his days in the militia.

Mr HardcastleNow if I should happen to say a good thing or tell a good story at table, you’re not all to burst out a-laughing, like you made part of the company.

Diggory: Then your worship must not tell the story of Ould Grouse in the gunroom.  We’ve laughed at that these twenty years.

Mr Hardcastle:  Ha, Ha the story is a good one.  Well, honest Diggory, you may laugh at that, but remember to be attentive…”

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The training is cut short as Mr Hardcastle hears a coach pulling in the yard. Mr Marlow and Mr Hastings have arrived and Mr Hardcastle sets off to give them a hearty welcome, in the old fashion,  at his gate.

The scene is now set for much confusion and discomforture for all concerned

 

Aye, the ale-house. I thought so!

Tony Lumpkin is in his element.  He’s singing, laughing and getting uproariously drunk with the local villagers in the bar of The Three Pigeons.

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We learn that Tony, when of age, will come into a fortune of £1500 a year, (a considerable fortune in 1773, when She Stoops was written!)  Once the money is his, his ambitions do not go any further than buying the miller’s grey mare and marrying Bet Bouncer …

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… but in the meantime, there is much ale to be drunk and many songs to be sung.

The landlord informs Tony that there are two gentlemen in a post-chaise at the door.  It appears that they are looking for Squire Hardcastle’s house but have lost their way in the forest.

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Tony is aware that his step-father is expecting a visit from the son of his old friend Sir Charles and further questions the landlord. “As sure as can be, one of them must be the gentleman that’s coming down to court my sister. Do they seem to be Londoners?”

The landlord’s reply is one of the many barbed comments in this play aimed at our European cousins on the other side of the English Channel.

“I believe they may,” says he. “They look woundingly like Frenchmen.”

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Tony sees an opportunity to play a trick on Squire Hardcastle.  “Father-in-law has been calling me whelp and hound this half year. Now if I pleased, I could be so avenged on the old grumbletonian!”  (Editor’s note:  In modern English, ‘father-in-law’ suggests a relationship by marriage.  In Georgian English, it just meant a relationship recognised by the law.)

He hatches a plot to fool the young gentlemen, Mr Marlow, who has come to court Kate, and his friend, Hastings, who plans to elope (to France) with Kate’s cousin, Constance.

He tells the young gentlemen that they will not reach Mr Hardcastle’s house that night. “It’s a damned, dark, boggy, dirty, dangerous way,” he tells them. He suggests they go a mile further up the road to the Old Buck’s Head on the hill, one of the best inn’s in the whole country.

This is, of course, Mr Hardcastle’s house, but Tony deepens the deception by warning Marlow and Hastings that “The landlord is rich and going to leave off business, so he wants to be thought a Gentleman. He’ll be for giving you his company and, if you mind him, he’ll persuade you that his mother was an alderman and his aunt a justice of the peace.. A troublesome old blade to be sure, but he keeps as good wines and beds as any in the whole country.”

And so the scene is set for a litany of misunderstanding, misdirection, insolence and social gaffes that keep the comedy rolling along at a pace for the next three acts.

“My pretty darling, Kate.”

Mr Hardcastle dotes on his only daughter, but that doesn’t  stop him berating her about her liking of fine clothes. “What a quantity of superfluous silk thou hast got about thee, girl!”

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“I could never convince the fools of this age that the indigent world could be clothed out of the trimmings of the vain!”

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Mr Hardcastle has important news for his daughter. He is expecting a visit that very evening from the young gentleman that he has chosen to be her husband.  Kate is less than impressed!

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However, as soon as Mr Hardcastle explains that the young Mr Marlow is not only the son of Sir Charles Marlow, but is also young, generous, very handsome and “designed for an employment in the service of his country.”  Kate starts to warm to the idea.

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Having settled his daughter’s future, Mr Hardcastle goes off to train the servants in preparation for the visit of the young gentleman from London. “Since we seldom have company, they want as much training as a company of recruits, the first day’s muster!”

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In the meantime, Kate confides with her cousin, Constance, that she has been “threatened with a lover.”

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Constance tells Kate that she is acquainted with the young Mr Marlow, who is the best friend of her own suitor, Mr Hastings, with whom she plans to elope.

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She then reveals the feature of Mr Marlow’s behaviour towards women that underpins the rest of the comedy of the play. “He’s a very singular character,” explains Constance.  “Amongst women of reputation and virtue, he is the modestest man alive, but his acquaintance give him a very different character among creatures of another stamp, you understand me.”

The scene changes.

 

What this ‘ere play’s about…

Squire Hardcastle, from somewhere up north, is discovered snoozing in his favourite armchair by the fireside,

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He is dreaming, no doubt, of marrying off his charming but independent-minded daughter, Kate, to the son of his old friend, Sir Charles Marlow.  Such a liaison would serve the double purpose of finding Kate a wealthy husband whilst, at the same time,  moving the family a notch or two up the social ladder.

Enter Mrs Hardcastle, who is in love with “London and the fashions though I was never there myself.”  She does, however keep abreast of “all the tete-a-tetes from the ‘scandalous magazines”  She is  wearing an outrageous wig, which we learn she has fashioned herself “from a sketch in the “Ladies Memorandum Book for last year.”

She berates Mr Hardcastle about the fact that they live in “this rambling old mansion that looks for all the world like an inn, but that we never see company… and all our entertainment is your old stories about Prince Eugene and the Duke of Marlborough”.

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Mrs Hardcastle has been married before and had a son by her first husband, Mr Lumpkin.  Thanks to her somewhat imperfect parenting skills, Tony Lumpkin is a wild, roaring twenty-something who, according to his mother, was always too sickly to go to school.

Mr Hardcastle does not consider Tony to be a valuable addition to the family, but Mrs Hardcastle, who is keeping a considerable fortune in jewels in trust for her niece, Constance, is very keen to engineer a marriage between Tony and Constance so that the fortune stays in the family.

To the despair of both of his parents, Tony’s sole interests in life are drinking with the yokels in the local ale-house and lusting after the voluptuous “Bet Bouncer of these parts.”

The plot is set to thicken.

 

 

Open air theatre, don’t you just love it?

The problem with open air theatre in Britain is … that it’s in the open air and therefore at the mercy of the British weather.

On the Friday evening of our run of She Stoops to Conquer at the Brighton Open Air Theatre, (BOAT), it started to rain quite steadily during the second half but, undaunted,  we kept going and the audience stayed with us. Everyone on both sides of the non-existent footlights got wet, but nobody seemed to mind. On Saturday we were supposed to be doing two performances, one at 2.00pm, the other at 7.00pm.

We assembled at the theatre as instructed at just before 1.00 pm and, cruelly, the sky was threatening but the rain was holding off. So, we set up the lights, erected the control tent to protect the lighting and sound technician and her equipment, set the stage and got into our costumes, so that we could be locked away in the hut before the audience started to arrive. At 2.00pm, right on cue, we started the play with the opening country dance and the Prologue. What professionals!

About ten minutes later, it started to rain, not heavily, but rain nonetheless. We sturdy thespians were undeterred. We snapped our fingers at the gathering clouds. Ha! The show must go on!

Then it became a game of chicken between us and the elements. Guess who won?

After about 40 minutes the director came backstage where a couple of us were waiting for our cue lines with the rain dripping from our chins and asked if we were prepared to continue. We said that we were, if the audience were prepared to sit there in their wet weather gear and watch us. After all, they had paid money to see this play. What’s a bit of rain one way or the other?

The play continued for another five minutes and then the decision was taken out of our hands. Reports from the other side of the wall where the sodden onlookers were sitting told us that the rain was now so heavy that, however loudly we declaimed, the poor audience couldn’t hear us over the noise of the rain drumming on their umbrellas. The decision was taken to abandon the show and cancel the evening performance as well.

It was announced to the dripping crowd, that tickets for the Saturday performances would be valid for the final show on Sunday afternoon and everyone went home.

The following day, as if embarrassed by its behaviour on the Saturday, the weather behaved itself impeccably. The costumes were dragged out into the sunshine to dry.

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Even some of the actors were allowed out of the hut to soak up the sun before scurrying back inside as the audience, with their picnic baskets and bottles of wine, started to arrive.

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And so the play got underway.

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What could possibly go wrong?    Funny you should ask!

The young woman who played the part of my daughter, Kate, didn’t look well when she arrived at the theatre. Unfortunately, her role in the play is quite crucial as she is the one who actually ‘stoops to conquer’.  She takes on the role of a serving maid in order to capture the heart of Mr Marlow, the rich and eligible bachelor pictured above.  Mr Marlow has a major social failing in that he becomes cripplingly shy in the presence of woman of a higher social order.

(Actually, viewed in the cold light of day, Mr Marlow is something of a monster.  He is quite willing to seduce any woman of a lower social standing and when challenged by his friend, Hastings, about robbing a  serving wench of her honour defends himself by saying:

“Pshaw! Pshaw!  We all know the honour of the barmaid of an inn.  I don’t intend to rob her, take my word for it.  There’s nothing in this house I shan’t honestly pay for.”

I’m not sure that there was much gender awareness around in 1773.)

Anyway, back to Kate.  As I said, she looked terrible when she arrived but went on stage for her first few scenes and no-one would have known there was anything wrong with her. She switched brilliantly into character and carried the story on with full vigour.

Then came the scene where I, as the grumpy squire, Mr Hardcastle, have a long ‘aside’ to the audience in which I complain about Mr Marlow’s insolent behaviour towards me, including the fact that he has taken possession of my easy chair by the fireside! The speech ends with the words “I am desirous to know how his insolence affects my daughter.  She will certainly be shocked at it.!”

My next line was supposed to addressed to my daughter as she comes on from the back of the stage to join me at the front.

Well, my Kate, I see you have changed your dress as I bid you….”

No Kate.

Whatever bug had caused her to look so ill before the show had tightened its grip on her and made it impossible for her to continue..

A few minutes of frantic ad-libbing ensued before my new ‘daughter’, now in modern dress and some thirty years older, came on stage with the script and read in the lines.  It was in fact the director who happened to backstage just at the right moment.

As I said, the show must go on!

During the interval, my new daughter donned the costume of my original daughter and, script in hand,  played the part through until the end.  The audience suspended its disbelief a bit further and their applause  at the end was generous and fulsome.  They had had a great afternoon despite, or perhaps because of, our distress.

But, hey!  It’s live theatre.  Anything can happen.

Stooping in the Rain?

When we got to the open air theatre yesterday evening, the first thing we had to do was to dismantle what was left of our backstage gazebo, where we are supposed to sit whilst waiting to go on stage.  The wind had been so strong that it had sheared one of the bolts that held the roof together, rendering the whole thing liable to tear itself to shreds, if left to face the wind in its severely weakened state.

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Fortunately, there were enough willing thespians on hand to carry out the work before the roof blew away.

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With my faithful servant, Diggory, ‘whom I have advanced from the barn’, making his own unique contribution.

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The storm clouds were gathering as we donned our costumes, but the audience just kept arriving, all equipped with picnics, rugs, anoraks, and various items of arctic clothing. About 120 people sat through the evening enthusiastically laughing and generally making us feel that our chattering teeth were still able to deliver some of the lines correctly.

We were rewarded with warm and generous applause at the end, but we were too cold to do more than one quick bow, before fleeing for the warmth of the hut that served as our dressing room.

The weather forecast for this evening is less than encouraging.  My guess is that the show will, in true theatrical tradition, go on, but I think it will be a pretty damp affair.  Only crazy people, with good waterproofs, will turn up to watch.  But this is Brighton, so who knows?

Tomorrow, if the weather forecast is to be believed,  I think we will be wise to abandon the theatricals and divert our energies to building an ark.  Whether or not our last performance will take place as planned on Sunday is firmly in the lap of the rain gods and the management of the Brighton Open Air Theatre.

Whatever floats your BOAT.

A breath of fresh air.

There are a number of challenges associated with performing a play in the open air.  The one that occupies the front of your mind is the possibility of rain.   But for the last three months we have been watching the cloudless skies in Brighton and worrying that the reservoirs must be running dry.  Rainfall in May and June was minimal.  The first part of July was pretty dry too.  But now?

The weather forecast for the next few days is for heavy rain interspersed with less heavy rain.  Well, that’ll be fun!

Moving from the tiny stage of the Brighton Little Theatre to the enormous apron stage of the Brighton Open Air Theatre was a challenge in itself.

For example, only the bare minimum of furniture and props could be transported from one to the other and, once the stage had been vacuumed …

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… they were laid out on the stage.

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As you can see from the photo above, we now have acres of space to fill, not only on the stage, but also in the amphitheatre. (At the back of this photo you can see the houses on one of the busiest roads into and out of Brighton!)

Next, we needed to create a lighting and sound box to house all of the ‘techie’ stuff.

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It was fortunate that we had a good number of servants and villagers to accomplish this.  It was really not the sort of thing that I, as Mr Hardcastle of Hardcastle Hall, or my friend Sir Charles, would like to get involved with.

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Fortunately, they were stalwart chaps and made a very good fist of it.  Salt of the earth really!

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Then, of course, the whole play had to be ‘re-blocked’- as we thespians call it!  At the Little Theatre, you could cross from one side of the stage to the other in three paces.  At the BOAT we have more space than we know what to do with, so we have to try and use it to best advantage.

And then there is the small matter of voice projection. We are all praying that there isn’t a stiff wind blowing from the sea for this evening’s opening night.  If there is, there could be a lot of shouting going on.

And then, of course, what happens to the actors when they are not on stage or are waiting to come on?  Well that’s where the self-assembly gazebo and the camping chairs come in.

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Well, a gentleman has to have somewhere to keep his wig!

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Wish me a broken leg!

 

Meet the B.O.A.T.

One of Brighton’s most closely guarded secrets is the existence of its open air theatre, BOAT. It’s within ten minutes walk of our house and until this week, although I had caught tantalising glimpses of it from the top of a bus, I had never been inside.

The theatre has an interesting history.  It all started with a charismatic Brighton man called Adrian Bunting, who was a construction manager by profession, a playwright by hobby and an ardent supporter of live theatre by inclination.  In the 1990s he founded Brighton’s only regular cabaret venue, the Zincbar and he had an unshakeable belief in the power and importance of live theatre.

In 2013 he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and six weeks later he was dead. He was 47 years of age.

Knowing that he was going to die, he decided to put in train a set of events that would result in Brighton having its own open air theatre.  He gathered a group of friends together and between them they sketched out the outline of a unique amphitheatre on a former bowling green in Dyke Road Park on the outskirts of the town.  He recognised that Brighton was one of the most artistic and creative towns in the UK and he believed that it deserved its own open air space to promote live theatre to tourists and residents alike during the summer months. He donated his own savings of £18,000 to get the fundraising started and called on his friends to make his dream a reality.

A year later, Brighton Open Air Theatre opened its gate for the first time.  The BOAT was launched.

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Facilities at the BOAT are limited.  Actors have to get changed in what used to be the club house of the now defunct bowls club,  a small wooden garden shed has been erected to enable drinks to be served during performances, and the nearest toilets are miles away in the park outside the fence.

After only three years in operation, the BOAT is able to put on a full, four-month season of plays, concerts and other theatrical events, that starts in May at the time of the Brighton Festival and goes on until September. The Brighton Little Theatre was offered two performance slots this year and thus brought Frankenstein and She Stoops to Conquer to the stage.

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Yes, this volunteer is vacuuming the stage.  Astroturf is wonderful stuff!

The show must go on… and on!

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Well, if you missed She Stoops to Conquer at the Brighton Little Theatre last week, don’t despair.  As a special treat, we’ll give you a second chance next week.

The run at the Little Theatre was great fun, especially as ‘little ‘ really does mean ‘little’.

The theatre itself seats a maximum of 71 at any one time.  If the audience in the front row stretch out their legs, they can be touching the front of the stage.

Although, with the stage lights on, you can see the people in the front row, the rest of the audience is completely hidden in the blackness behind the lights.  So you have no idea how many people there are in the auditorium, whether they are following the story, or, indeed, whether they are still awake.

There are no proper dressing rooms at BLT, so the women get changed in the kitchen, surrounded by coffee mugs and biscuits, while the men are consigned to the workshop, surrounded by pots of paint, ladders and boxes of props.

The stage is about the size of a primary school classroom, which means that projecting your voice is not really an issue.  However, it does mean that you have to be careful not to bump into the furniture or, worse still, that you don’t ‘mask’ other actors from the audience.

When the set is in place and the show is on, there is only room for single-file traffic off-stage for actors wanting to make their dramatic entrances and exits. There are lots of whispered ‘Sorry’s’, as people try to squeeze past each other

But all of these problems will pale into insignificance next week when we start our second ‘run’ at the Brighton Open Air Theatre.  (Thursday 27 until Sunday 30th July.  Be there, or be square!)

The B. O. A. T. is huge!

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It can seat nearly 450 people and, apart from a couple of white walls at the back, it has no ‘backstage’ at all! So we won’t be able to complain about being cramped.

Making sure we can be heard, if indeed there are people choosing to sit in the back row, might be a bit tricky, especially if it is windy.

However, for me, the biggest challenge will be that all of the performances will take place in broad daylight, so we will be able to see the audience in all its glory as they eat their picnics, sip their chardonnay, chat amongst themselves or doze peacefully in the sunshine.

Sunshine?  What sunshine?   I’ve just read a headline from one of our more excitable tabloid newspapers that says that next week is predicted to bring the worse period of sustained bad weather this summer.  Oh, boy! Can’t wait!

Oh, well.  The show must go on!  Break a leg, everyone.

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