Saturday 25 November 2023

Theatre review: She Stoops to Conquer

Tom Littler continues to find his own stamp on the Orange Tree's traditional money-spinning revivals with Restoration Comedy given a 1930s twist: One of the most famous examples of the genre, Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, gets set in a rural pub at Christmas, with Anett Black and Neil Irish's design adding tables and stuffed animal heads, to reflect a story about a posh county house that could easily be mistaken for an inn. It's a conceit that's set up early so that Charles Marlow (Freddie Fox) and George Hastings (Robert Mountford,) lost on their way to meet their prospective spouses, can be tricked into thinking they're taking shelter in a roadside tavern, when in fact they've reached their destination: The home of Mr Hardcastle (David Horovitch,) an old friend of Marlow's father, whose daughter Kate he's been sent to meet and court.

But Marlow's personality varies wildly depending on the social class of the people he's with: Brash among friends and the lower classes, he becomes timid and socially inept around women of his own class, especially those who are considered a suitable match.

But when he meets Kate (Tanya Reynolds) he mistakes her for a barmaid and flirts confidently, quickly striking up a rapport with her, all the time worrying about the genteel lady he's meant to be paired up with. Meanwhile Hastings is in love with Kate's cousin Constance (Sabrina Bartlett,) but Mrs Hardcastle (Greta Scacchi) has her in mind for her son from her first marriage, Tony Lumpkin (Guy Hughes,) and is determined to keep Constance's inheritance in the family.

In fact I think Littler and Francesca Ellis' production might even have edited out a couple of the plot tangles and confusions of Goldsmith's frantic play, which definitely makes something closer to sense when watching it than when trying to describe it. The main thing is to keep it fast and funny, and that's certainly achieved. There's some slight text tweaks to bring the play from the 18th century to the mid-20th, but still it's the original dialogue that gets the biggest laughs - often from Horovitch's permenently-grumpy patriarch.

The other highlight comes in the scenes between the star pairing of Fox and Reynolds, whose dialogue bursts with energy whether they're flirting or nervously darting around each other (they can play both because Marlow is so nervous in the scenes when he knows she's Kate he can never quite look at her face, so he doesn't recognise her when she plays the barmaid.) Bartlett also really throws herself into the fun, and the directors ensure the comic energy is kept up with musical numbers from Hughes and a community chorus of unpaid extras, and a doddering butler from Richard Derrington.

The production doesn't really delve into the fact that the plot revolves around the assumption that it's okay to trate people wildly differently depending on their social class, but I guess that's there if you want to see it; the job here is to provide some seasonal fun, and on that front it rarely misses the mark.

She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith is booking until the 13th of January at the Orange Tree Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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