She Stoops to Conquer review – Orange Tree theatre, Richmond

Image above: Whole cast, She Stoops to Conquer; Orange Tree Theatre; photograph Marc Brenner

250th anniversary production of the classic comedy by Oliver Goldsmith

I was a little surprised to see She Stoops to Conquer on the bill at The Orange Tree in Richmond.  The comedy, by Oliver Goldsmith, was first performed 250 years ago and it is not so often performed now, as it can be hard to make the humour of such a different time relatable to a modern audience.

The only time I had ever seen it before was a production at my sister’s school, when it most definitely did not lift off the page. I also associate The Orange Tree with new work. The last play I saw there was set during the student riots in Hong Kong three years ago.

The Orange Tree does champion new work, but it also makes a point of rediscovering old plays and keeping them in the repertoire, so the 250th anniversary seemed like a good time to dust off Goldsmith’s classic.

It was brilliant. In the hands of top class actors and artistic director Tom Littler it was perfectly relatable; delightfully witty and entertaining.

Image above: Tanya Reynolds as Kate, Freddie Fox as Charles; photograph Marc Brenner

Deception, wit and trickery, with jazz music and 1930s glamour

The story is this: the ‘She’ of the title, Kate (Tanya Reynolds, Sex Education, A Mirror) is due to meet the man her father intends her to marry, Charles Marlow (Freddie Fox, The Great, House of the Dragon), the son of his oldest friend.

Charles is relaxed in the company of the lower order of women, but becomes a gibbering idiot when forced to spend time with women of his own class. Hearing this, Kate decides to play a trick on him and appear as a maid. Naturally they get on like a house on fire.

He offends her father, however, (David Horovitch, Miss MarpleMr Turner) by treating their home Hardcastle Hall as an inn, and Hardcastle as the landlord, ordering him to fetch him and his friend Hastings (Robert Mountford, The Habit of Art) their supper and giving him their boots to be cleaned.

Image above: Guy Hughes as Tony Lumpkin entertaining the punters at the local pub; photograph Marc Brenner

This he does because Kate’s step-brother Tony Lumpkin (Guy Hughes, The Little Matchgirl) has decided to have a bit of fun at their expense and told them the house was an inn, when they got lost and asked at the local pub for suggestions of a place to stay, having given up all hope of reaching their intended host.

Meanwhile Hastings has his own intrigue going on. Mrs Hardcastle (Greta Scacchi, Heat and Dust, War and Peace) is determined her son will marry his cousin Constance (Sabrina Bartlett, While the Sun Shines), but she is hell-bent on running off with Hastings, with the jewels which Mrs Hardcastle has been keeping safe for her until she comes of age to inherit them.

Image above: Greta Scacchi as Mrs Hardcastle and Sabrina Bartlett as Constance; photograph Marc Brenner

It could be really naff, but it isn’t, it’s tremendous fun. They are loveable, larger than life characters – Mrs Hardcastle, (Mr Hardcastle’s second wife and much younger than he), ridiculous in her vanity, pining for the delights of London; Mr Hardcastle, becoming more and more apoplectic at each effrontery visited on him by the intolerable insolence of the young pup come to pay suit to his daughter; Freddie, switching from confident, genial lad about town to monosyllabic, awkward stuffed shirt in front of Kate, his intended, who is clever, sly, funny, manipulative in a well-intended way, and in total control of the situation. Constance is pretty and lively in a charmingly energetic way, and Hastings is a bit dim and a bit of a cad.

Richard Derrington (The Tempest, The Archers) completes the cast as Diggory, the doddery old butler (a male predecessor of Julie Walters’ Mrs Overall character from Acorn Antiques) with heroic doddering. There are also a couple of rousing choruses from the Orange Tree theatre’s Community ensemble, as punters in the local pub.

Image above: Happy ending at Hardcastle hall; photograph Marc Brenner

I had never understood the title until now, never having had cause to think about it. She (Kate) stoops to conquer because she has to lower herself in order to win the young man’s affection. The whole play does rather rely on the audience buying in to the importance of a vertiginously deep ravine between the social classes.

Artistic director Tom Littler has set this production in the 1930s, to make it more modern and accessible while still retaining the importance of class division. It also gives the production the advantage of jazz music, glamorous costumes and the setting of a comfortable country house with a Jeeves and Woosterish air.

The play, which runs until 13 January 2024, is selling fast. If any of this sounds to you like it might be fun, I highly recommend you go. It is, if nothing else, the chance to see some really fine actors up close in the round.

Book tickets: She Stoops to Conquer – Orange Tree Theatre