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An entertaining night in the lead up to Christmas, She Stoops to Conquer at the Orange Tree Theatre certainly lives up to its promised laughs, if falling short on offering up much else.

Image credit: Orange Tree Theatre

The scent of mulled wine is in the air as audience members file into the Orange Tree Theatre. She Stoops to Conquer, the comedic classic of (not my) school years, is on stage once again in London since its first production in 1773. Attempting to "honour and rediscover plays of the past", Tom Littler with Francesca Ellis directs Oliver Goldsmith’s topsy-turvy play of laughs, deception and romance.

At the centre of the action is Kate, played by Tanya Reynolds (Sex Education), the pretty young daughter of Mr. Hardcastle (David Horovich) and Marlow, a cripplingly shy but handsome Londoner who is due to stay at the Hardcastle’s on the request of his father who is itching for his son to be married. Freddie Fox (The Crown) steals the stage as a lustful and effeminate Marlow, who is as much at the whim of his desires as he is his nerves. Though Marlow’s greatest fear is to be laughed at, Fox’s performance induces plenty, keenly balancing the whining of an upper-class English bachelor, whilst still being likeable enough that we hope he gets the girl.

Marlow’s reluctant courtship is thwarted early on, however, by Kate’s boyish and cheeky half-brother, Tony (played by Guy Hughes) who tells Marlow and his friend, Hastings, they are not in fact at Hardcastle Hall, but at a local inn. Chaos ensues, as the family and guests (literally) circle the manor, playing tricks on each other, but allowing the audience, who also (literally) circle the stage, to poke fun in a cosy and intimate setting at each of the befuddled and bemused characters.

Following Tony’s trick at the heart of this tale, Kate realises that she can seduce Marlow, whom we now know is nearly castrated by his fear of upper-class women, by pretending to be a lowly country barmaid. Whilst Kate stoops below her class in an attempt to conquer Marlow, Mrs. Hardcastle, played by Greta Scacchi, plans for the engagement of her son, Tony, and her niece, Constance, played by Sabrina Bartlett. The two are repulsed by one another, and Tony, Constance and her lover Hastings (Robert Mountford) attempt to deceive Mrs. Hastings by stealing Constance’s inheritance held by her aunt for safe keeping, allowing the lovers to elope in France.

Despite the laughs, Tom Littler’s modern day rendition curiously seems to evoke a sentimentality that Goldsmith had famously railed against. Set for the first time in 1934 – a P.G. Wodehouse “fantasy-land” as the programme describes, with a rather bedraggled, Jeeves-like character to boot – Littler’s She Stoops has all the aristocratic banter that my grandfather might yearn for from a Britain gone-by. For a Richmond audience though, the sentimentality appeared welcome, and the play certainly accrued laughs in a way that felt true to the skill and wit of Goldsmith’s original, if only by blowing the dust off a classic. For all the drama with a capital ‘D’ – including a faux faint on part of Mrs. Hastings – Littler seems to miss the opportunity to point laughs back at the wealthy Londoners in the audience for a tale that famously pits the countryside against the city.

Once you meet Littler on his terms – potentially by purchasing some of “Mr. Hardcastle’s Mulled Wine” during the intermission (as I did) – the pantomime-like twinkle in the eye of Hughes’ Tony – “Do you want to hear a song?!” – might go down a little smoother.


Paige Bruton is a London-based journalist and critic, originally from Bermuda. She holds a MSc from Columbia Journalism School, and she specialises in writing about the arts and culture. You can read her other work published in the essay collection, Exhumed: Experiments in Memory, and can find her through her twitter here.


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