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She Stoops to Conquer at The Orange Tree Theatre | Review

I first read She Stoops to Conquer in 1986 whilst studying English Literature at Birkbeck. It has only taken me 38 years to see it performed, but it was worth the wait because this production is outstanding. It boasts a very strong lineup. All nine actors are very accomplished from the mature experienced pros like Greta Scacchi and David Horovitch to the younger talent like Freddie Fox and Tanya Reynolds. This magnificent nine have clearly gelled and enjoyed themselves putting on this classic of eighteenth-century English comedy. Updating some of the jokes the language director Tom Littler and his team give us a version of She Stoops to Conquer that someone in the original 1774 audience would recognise. The central premise of this delightful rom-com is that the class hierarchy can be turned on its head. Upstairs becomes downstairs and downstairs becomes upstairs. Part Alice in Wonderland, part Cinderella, and part Trading Places, She Stoops to Conquer kicks off a long line of English comic capers. With its confluence of witty dialogue, comic disguises, misunderstandings, farcical stage business, slapstick knock-about and bawdy song and dance routines She Stoops to Conquer is the perfect Christmas escapist pick-me-up.

Company of She Stoops to Conquer - credit Marc Brenner.
Company of She Stoops to Conquer – credit Marc Brenner.

I mentioned that I read English Literature at Birkbeck four decades ago. I now feel that the course ought to be called Literature in English because so much of the canon has been written by Irish writers. Goldsmith, Sheridan, Stoker, Shaw, Yeats, Wilde, Joyce and Beckett to name a few. Goldsmith became a trailblazer for Irish writers. He opened the door through which Sheridan et al followed. A vicar’s son, a beggar, a busker, a failed doctor, a gambler and a debtor he turned to writing and became a noted novelist, poet and dramatist. A bachelor he died aged 44 in the same year She Stoops to Conquer was staged at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Covent Garden. He put much of his life into She Stoops to Conquer. For example, his love of drinking, singing and dancing is evidenced by the wonderful scenes in the village pub The Three Pigeons. His face was disfigured by smallpox. I think a strong case can be made that the shyness of Mr Marlow (superbly brought to life by Freddie Fox) reflects in part Goldsmith’s own feelings of awkwardness with women as a result.

The relationship between Mr Marlow and Miss Kate Hardcastle (Tanya Reynolds is undoubtedly one to watch, her range of accents alone is astonishing) is central to the play. Reversing the plot of The Taming of the Shrew, Kate has to woo Marlow as he’s too shy to even make eye contact with young women. She has to stoop to conquer. (The play reverses the usual practice whereby men get down on one knee to propose. It also means to come down from de haut en bas). Not so much Kiss me Kate as kiss me, Marlow. It’s a wonderful romcom tussle that fascinates and delights. The verbal sparring between these two is a match for Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing. The innuendo is particularly well done. Watch out for Tanya as she suggestively cleans chair uprights to break down the reserve of Mr Marlow. The comic subplot gives Robert Mountford and Sabrina Bartlett plenty of stage time to show off their considerable comic gifts. Greta Scacchi gives a well-crafted comic turn as Mrs Hardcastle. A country woman she is desperate to keep up with ‘Fashon’. David Horovitch gives a comic masterclass as her husband, a crotchy cross between Victor Meldrew and Mr Toad. His exaggerated enunciation of the word “impertinence” is terrific. Richard Derrington as the doddery-aged butler Diggory is sublime. Guy Hughes is marvellous as the spoilt Peter Pan son Tony Lumpkin. There won’t be many better Christmas treats this year than this very fine collector’s piece. Don’t make my mistake and wait 38 years before you see it.

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no fibs

Christmas at Hardcastle Hall. David Horovitch (Miss Marple, Mr Turner) and Greta Scacchi (Heat and Dust, War and Peace) play Mr and Mrs Hardcastle, who have rather different ideas of the perfect Christmas. She craves cool jazz and cocktails; he wants a warm fire and the company of his bookish daughter Kate.

Kate (Tanya Reynolds, Sex Education, A Mirror) can’t wait to meet her intended fiancé, Charles Marlow (Freddie Fox, The Great, House of the Dragon). But when Marlow is stricken with nerves, Kate must act fast.

Meanwhile, confusion reigns. Kate’s friend Constance (Sabrina Bartlett, While the Sun Shines) is trying to steal her own diamonds to run off to France with her dim-witted beau, Hastings (Robert Mountford, The Habit of Art). Tony Lumpkin (Guy Hughes, The Little Matchgirl) has tricked the visitors into believing that Hardcastle Hall is a pub. And Diggory (Richard Derrington, The Tempest, The Archers) is rapidly proving to be the worst butler in the world.

Constance Neville – Sabrina Bartlett
Diggory/Sir Charles – Richard Derrington
Charles Marlow – Freddie Fox
Mr Hardcastle – David Horovitch
Tony Lumpkin – Guy Hughes
George Hastings – Robert Mountford
Kate Hardcastle – Tanya Reynolds
Mrs Hardcastle – Greta Scacchi

Director Tom Littler
Associate Director Francesca Ellis
Designer & Costume Designer Anett Black
Designer & Costume Designer Neil Irish
Composer & Sound Designer Tom Attwood
Lighting Designer Jonathan Chan
Movement Director Julia Cave
Voice and Accent Coach Nick Trumble
Deputy Stage Manager Lisa Cochrane
Assistant Stage Manager Waverley Moran

She Stoops to Conquer

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  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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