Artistic Director Tom Littler, with Francesca Ellis, scores another inspired triumph with his production of Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. Transported from the Georgian period to the 1930s and given a festive air, with Hardcastle Hall bedecked in holly and boasting a large Christmas tree, the seasonal setting works brilliantly to heighten the lighthearted jollity of this classic piece of theatre.
A seasonal cracker of a production
There is something very giving about the layout of the Orange Tree Theatre. The corner doors lend themselves to the many comings and goings that keep everyone on their toes. The railings around the circle have been oak panelled and surmounted with hunting trophies and family crests The set and costumes by Neil Irish and Anett Black have really captured the feel and style of a country house for distinguished residents, while Mrs Hardcastle’s penchant for cocktails and parties is captured in the fabulously designed outfits she flaunts. (I can still see the turquoise cocktail dress and flowing orange robe that matched her wig. What a stunning triumph!) With the seats taken out of one side of the auditorium and replaced with tables and chairs, a slick shuffling of furniture transforms the sitting room into the bar of the local pub, the Three Jolly Pigeons, and later into the garden. The addition of a rotating ensemble of local performers to the pub scenes thoroughly enhances the atmosphere, as does the contribution from all the other creatives: lighting by Jonathan Chan; music and sound by Tom Attwood and movement by Julia Cave.
A stellar cast from across the generations completes the picture. David Horovitch opens and sets the tome with his period tweed jacket and plus fours, bumbling around with a disgruntled air as Greta Scacchi, the source of his marital woes breezes in as Mrs Hardcastle. What a joy it is to see seasoned actors who know how to deliver these period roles. The youngsters are by no means outshone, however, and soon take centre stage. Guy Hughes, as Tony Lumpkin, Mr Hardcastle’s mischievous stepson, provides lively songs in the pub and relishes every moment of creating domestic havoc. By chance, Charles Marlow, the suitor who has come at Mr Hardcastle’s invitation to meet his daughter, Kate, encounters Lumpkin in the pub. He and his companion, George Hastings have lost their way. Lumpkin directs them to Hardcastle Hall, but tells them it’s an inn where they will find accommodation. They arrive and treat all the residents as staff. Lumpkin takes Kate into his confidence and she wholeheartedly plays the maid.
Confusion, mayhem and misunderstandings now become the norm in a farcical comedy of errors that the cast plays to the full. Tanya Reynolds has all the style and elegance to carry off the posh daughter, but transforms herself into the naive country maid with rustic charm.
The dashing Freddie Fox captures Marlow’s stuttering nervousness in dealing with women, yet is full of bravado in other situations and is ably assisted by his companion Robert Mountford as the practical George. He in turn has his own scheming storyline with Constance, Mrs Hadcastle’s cousin, involving the family jewels and Lumpkin. Sabrina Bartlett gives her a feisty air that contrasts with Kate’s gracefulness. A final good measure of humour comes with Richard Derrington as Diggory, the inept butler, doubling as the aristocratic Sir Charles Marlow in an upstairs, downstairs reversal of roles.
This year marks the play’s 250th anniversary and its easy to why it has stood the test of time. Littler has successfully shown that it can be played in any age and is not simply rooted in the distant past. Pandering to the English obsession with social class while exposing the shenanigans of the well-to do, its humour is as powerful today as ever and makes it a seasonal cracker of a production.