It’s not often you get to watch a revival of a play in its 250th anniversary year, though if you are, it’s probably at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre which has built a reputation for reviving old classics alongside new writing. Seeing out the year is Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, and the production from the theatre’s artistic director, Tom Littler, is a laugh a minute delight.
The story, here set in the 1930’s, revolves around the young and mischievous Marlow, who is shy and awkward around upper-class women but confident with those of lower social status. Mistaken identities, romantic entanglements, and humorous misunderstandings ensue when Marlow and his friend Hastings visit the Hardcastle estate, believing it to be an inn. The character to which the title refers, Kate Hardcastle, pretends to be a barmaid to win Marlow’s affections.
The play satirises social class distinctions, which can be seen most prominently in the character of Mrs Hardcastle (Greta Scacchi), who in another plot line is adamant that her niece, Constance (Sabrina Bartlett) should marry her son in order to keep her fortune of precious jewels in the family. Constance however, is keen to elope with Hastings (Robert Mountford) and the subterfuge they employ to try and make this happen becomes ever more elaborate.
She Stoops to Conquer is a comedy of manners in the truest sense of the word, it’s original success was partly attributed to its departure from the sentimental and moralistic tone prevalent in many works of the time, and it introduced the concept of exploring relationships through farce.
Marlow is tricked on more than one occasion, and that causes the character to have two distinct personalities; the confident and brusque rogue who believes his host is an inn-keeper, and the nervous and modest gentleman who can barely string a sentence together in the presence of Kate. Freddie Fox is outstanding in the role, delivering a perfect performance that has the audience in stitches. Fox easily transitions between the two personalities and simultaneously captivates the audience throughout.
Kate too has a dual role of sorts, though this is done deliberately rather than involuntarily as in the case of Marlow. Tanya Reynolds also shines in the role, and although this is the least comedic of the characters, Reynolds doesn’t let that get in the way of owning the stage.
David Horovitch is the curmudgeonly country landowner that enjoys the old fashioned way of life, in stark contrast to the second Mrs Hardcastle who is besotted by all things new-fangled. Their butler Diggory (Richard Derrington) probably should have been retired years ago, which provides much comic material throughout the play.
The principals are joined by a rotating cast of non-professional actors from the local community, on press night it was the ‘Betterton Company’ who fantastically portrayed the landlord and patrons of the Three Pigeons Pub. That establishment features a few more females than Goldsmith’s original, just one of a handful of minor changes that have been made to give this production of She Stoops to Conquer an early 20th century PG Wodehouse feel.
Anett Black and Neil Irish’s set and costumes wonderfully recreate the feel of a country home at Christmas time, and cleverly transforms to the local tavern, or the gardens as required. Tom Attwood’s music and sound design also helps propel the story further forward in time.
This classic play, which has been revived many times on both stage and screen is given another new lease of life in Littler’s uproarious production. She Stoops to Conquer’s stellar cast of professionals and non-professionals come together to deliver a masterclass in farce.
She Stoops to Conquer is at The Orange Tree Theatre until 13th January 2024