Review: She Stoops to Conquer, Orange Tree Theatre

A beautifully judged festive treat – She Stoops to Conquer is a rolicking good time at the Orange Tree Theatre

“I’ll be with you in the squeezing of a lemon”

She Stoops to Conquer is a clever bit of programming from Tom Littler, for his first festive show as AD at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre. A crowd-pleasing comedy is rarely a bad thing and in Oliver Goldsmith’s evergreen Georgian farce, this is one of the best – top tier theatre when done right (qv Jamie Lloyd for the National Theatre back in 2012 – that cast!, not so much Lindsay Posner in Bath in 2015, even with my beloved Anita Dobson).

Along with Associate Director Francesca Ellis, Littler has transported the play to Christmastime in the 1930s. We’re in the august surroundings of Hardcastle Hall, impressively realised in Anett Black and Neil Irish’s design which immerses us right in the drawing room under the baleful gaze of a mounted deer’s head – how I wish it could have been a real Christmas tree I was next to though. And sure enough, despite my resistance to anything festive before 20th December, this charming production won me over.

The 1930s setting proves an excellent fit, especially for its central would-be pairings. Daughter of the house Kate is being matched with Charles Marlow who is a nervous wreck around women of his own social class but fine with those ‘below’ him. And her cousin Constance is determined to claim her family diamonds so she can run off with her beloved Hastings, who just happens to Marlow’s best pal. As the chaps head over to Hardcastle Hall, they’re duped, by Kate’s mischievous half-brother Tony, into believing it is an inn so as they check in for the night, chaos inevitably ensures.

It is daft in the extreme, but Freddie Fox (Charles) and Robert Mountford (Hastings) perfectly capture a foppish energy which plays beautifully off the self-confidence radiating from Tanya Reynolds (Kate) and Sabrina Bartlett (Constance) as they very much seize the initiative in getting what they want. Reynolds’ bright-eyed Kate cosplays as a barmaid to try and understand something of Charles’ psyche, Fox so good at raffish insouciance. And Bartlett is scene-stealingly good as she strives toward eloping, with or without the jewels, her exasperated face a constant delight.

Throw in David Horovitch and Greta Scacchi as the bickering Mr and Mrs Hardcastle, amusingly baffled at the nonsense happening under their feet, Richard Derrington as doddery butler Diggory, and a delightful Guy Hughes as a ukulele-strumming Tony, and it all adds up to a slow-burning but generously warm-hearted affair. A community ensemble is used sparingly to beef up a couple of scenes but it is scarcely needed as once the cocktails are poured and the gentle mayhem begun, you can’t help but be conquered.

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