“She Stoops to Conquer” at Orange Tree Theatre

Jeremy Malies in west London
26 November 2023

“I wonder why London cannot keep its own fools at home!” is the line from Mr Hardcastle (David Horovitch) that stayed with me in this revival of Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy. The Orange Tree’s artistic director Tom Littler (working with Francesca Ellis) has recognized not just the durability but malleability of this play which supports a Christmas theme here as well as more physical comedy than is the norm plus a broad-brush Wodehousian backdrop.


Robert Mountford and Sabrina Bartlett.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


Required to strip away Pirandellian levels of plot in A Mirror, Tanya Reynolds as female lead Kate Hardcastle must hover between two characters here, or at least two iterations of herself. She plays the eligible daughter of the house who would be a good match for tongue-tied Freddie Fox (Marlow) but also the flirtatious even slutty barmaid with whom Fox is initially keen to fool around. It should be remembered that Marlow is bashful with women of his own class but assured with those he considers his social inferiors. But having recognized the innate decency of barmaid Kate, he tells her so and makes a point of refusing to seduce her. This of course endears him to Kate in her true persona who has stooped to conquer.

The four-square (in the round after a fashion) layout of the Orange Tree limits the scope for set designers Neil Irish and Anett Black who must by turns make the space an inn and then a private house that resembles an inn! It’s quite an ask to which they respond inventively. Later, when Tony Lumpkin (Guy Hughes) pretends to drive his jazz-loving cocktail-swigging mother (Greta Scacchi) half way across the county but in fact takes her no more than a few hundred yards, we see the snow-covered grounds of the house with artful use of fabric and gauze.

Scacchi’s mix of real fear coupled with almost sexual excitement at meeting a highwayman is delicious, as is her relief when the dark presence at the gate proves to be her eminently sane husband whose dry sarcasm and world-weariness prefigure Jane Austen’s creation of Mr Bennet 40 years later.

There are small tables for spectators on the lower of the two levels and in this way, Irish makes us believe that theatre-goers (who on press night included well-known actors from other projects here) are drinkers at Lumpkin’s watering hole “The Three Pigeons”. And it is illiterate aristocrat and legatee Lumpkin who sets the plot in motion. When Fox and his dim-witted but straight-dealing pal Hastings (Robert Mountford) stumble across the pub in their car, Lumpkin directs them to his nearby home telling them that it is an inn. The map-reading scene that precedes this (there is even discussion of longitude) sets the standards high for comedy.


The ensemble.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


Far from being the awkward booby that some take him for, Lumpkin holds the cards. Hughes excels in what for decades has been described as an underwritten part when it has simply needed the energy and invention seen here, even to the point of Hughes playing ukelele in the interval using the words from a Goldsmith elegy as lyrics.

Reynolds moves across her two characters deftly and injects innuendo as she polishes up the horn of a gramophone while draping herself near Fox. There is a running smutty gag about a view of her embroidery below stairs. Earlier, she has been tactile to just the right degree as she tests Fox who will do little but look at the floor. Littler and Ellis regulate this precisely, as they do the young men treating Horovitch abominably and far worse than even the most eccentric of inn keepers might deserve. I howled as Mountford interrupted the older man at the climax of one of his stories to demand a glass of punch. “Was ever such a request made to a man in his own home?”

Irish also captures the period with his costumes featuring gently distressed tweed, resplendent double-breasted pinstripe lounge suits, two-tone brogues and dapper evening dress. And that’s just the men of course.

Reynolds bounces off Sabrina Bartlett who plays her friend Constance and the fiancée of Hastings. Bartlett’s best scenes however are with the irrepressible Hughes. There is a subplot that Lumpkin must marry. As a cousin, Constance has been approved by Mrs Hardcastle. The pair pretend to canoodle with much invention and quick-fire movement around the stage. Another joy is Reynolds’ pitch-perfect impersonation of her mother.

It was interesting to see the text being modified as sparingly as possible by the Orange Tree team. A few massive anachronisms have to go but some oddities remain. Despite the profusion of Tatler fashion supplements around the stage, I was surprised to hear Marlow fret that having embarrassed himself with Kate, he would be “stuck up in caricatura in all the print-shops.”

I am difficult to amuse and prissy in terms of how texts are adapted. When Richard Derrington as Diggory, the decrepit comic butler, shuffled on with his drinks trolley, I feared multiple pratfalls and nearly reached out for his bottle of gin in despair. But it all proved disciplined and included my highlight of the night.

Diggory is given a pep talk by Mr Hardcastle and told how important the guests are. If Hardcastle proves to be on form and tells a good story, Diggory must not start laughing as though he is at the same social level as the visitors. Diggory makes a plea: “Your worship must not tell the story of Ould Grouse in the gun-room: I can’t help laughing at that.” “Well, honest Diggory, you may laugh at that—but still remember to be attentive!”

We never get to hear about Ould Grouse in the gun-room but there is a profusion of good gags delivered by an adept, playful set of actors. The pub-goers who invade “The Three Pigeons” and sing in it are a community ensemble and there was a feel-good factor here that in no way took from the excellence of the whole project. This is middle if not high-brow. Once I let down what I admit is my ludicrous guard, I was laughing fit to beat the band for the rest of the night.

The production never loses sight of central themes such as class, neurosis, geography and social mobility. But a crown jewel of the eighteenth-century comedy of manners roster is being given a wonderful Christmas run-out.