mon 26/02/2024

She Stoops to Conquer, Orange Tree Theatre review - much-loved classic rumbustiously updated | reviews, news & interviews

She Stoops to Conquer, Orange Tree Theatre review - much-loved classic rumbustiously updated

She Stoops to Conquer, Orange Tree Theatre review - much-loved classic rumbustiously updated

A familiar comedy provides Jeeves and Wooster-period Christmas fun

Charles Marlow (Freddie Fox) on easy terms with Kate Hardcastle (Tanya Reynolds)Marc Brenner

Oliver Goldsmith was a literary all-rounder – novelist, poet and playwright – remembered chiefly for one example of each discipline, respectively The Vicar of Wakefield, "The Deserted Village" and, of course, above all, She Stoops to Conquer.

This play, Goldsmith wrote, was a return to "laughing comedy" as opposed to the fashionable "sentimental" kind, which exhibited "the virtues of private life" rather than exposing its vices, and focused on the distresses of characters rather than their faults. It is 250 years old this year and regularly revived, its laughter quotient intact.

David Horovitch as Mr Hardcastle in She Stoops to ConquerAt the Orange Tree, the wigs and flounces of 1773 are replaced for this seasonal staging by the tweeds and pearls of the PG Wodehouse era. Director Tom Littler has found here a parallel good-natured satire of the human, mainly upper class, mostly forgivable foibles and dim self-absorbed incompetence of Bertie Wooster and chums. The change of period to Christmas 1934 is achieved relatively simply, by replacing carriages with cars and cutting 18th century expletives. And it provides an excuse for some jolly musical interludes: a jazzed-up "God rest you merry, gentlemen" anyone?

Two London chaps, Charles Marlow and George Hastings, lost on their way to the home of Mr Richard Hardcastle, where Charles is to meet his putative fiancée Kate, are tricked into believing the great house is an inn. Designers Anett Black and Neil Irish have fashioned a sitting room – all leather sofas and stags' heads – which could believably be either. The prankster is Tony Lumpkin, Hardcastle's stepson, an uneducated wastrel, described as a "booby" but actually able to run rings round the rest of the company. Mistakes, of course, ensue. There is a frantic subplot involving Kate's friend, Constance (Sabrina Bartlett), and her lover Hastings (Robert Mountford). Constance's aunt, Mrs Hardcastle, wants her to marry Tony and so keep her fortune of jewels – conveniently stashed in a portable casket – in the family. All is resolved satisfactorily, Goldsmith opting for the sentimental romantic conclusion he seemed to eschew

Class – needless to say – is a running theme and the updating highlights a less savoury element of the plot. While clever Jeeves patiently out-plays and regularly rescues his master, posh Marlow is struck dumb when encountering women of his own class but happily seduces serving maids. There's potentially an unpleasant whiff of droit de seigneur here, but Freddie Fox as Marlow almost dispels this danger with fresh-faced awkwardness. His gauche enthusiasm for Tanya Reynolds' lively, intelligent Kate Hardcastle when she appears in servant guise – stooping to conquer – becomes genuine and is readily reciprocated when they banter as equals. Never before has the word "embroidery" acquired such filthy resonance. It is difficult to overlook Marlow's double standards entirely, though, until he is taught a lesson by Kate; she will be in control when they are married.

Among the rest of the cast, David Horovitch (above left) is a delight as crusty, confused Mr Hardcastle, timing his lines to perfection. Greta Scacchi, as his wife with her misdirected attempts at London fashion, sports a crinkly ginger wig and garish silks. Richard Derrington doubles admirably as hilariously doddery butler Diggory (he could easily offer "two soups") and Charles's conventional father. Guy Hughes's Lumpkin (pictured below) is more difficult to place in this world. He is as good looking as the young leads and musically accomplished. It's not easy to believe that someone of his background, however uneducated, would have failed to learn to read in 1934.

Guy Hughes and the She Stoops to Conquer company

An enthusiastic community company of singing pub patrons (overseen by associate director Francesca Ellis) adds to the jollity and incidentally helps with stage management.

The bijou Orange Tree, with audience on all four sides of the action, does not lend itself easily to this kind of play, originally meant for a larger proscenium space. Asides become almost impossible to pull off and there is a tendency to overdo the comedy. There is certainly fun to be had here, but it is Fun with a heavily signalled capital F. But then just about everything is OTT at Christmas; this full-throated entertainment will no doubt go down a treat along with the mulled wine and mince pies.

@heathermneill

Never before has the word 'embroidery' acquired such filthy resonance

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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