This 1773 comedy by Oliver Goldsmith is one of those plays that used to be a repertory staple but has now fallen out of favour. But this sparkling, updated revival by the Orange Tree makes a case for a comeback.
Its plot centres on a young nobleman Charles Marlow, who is tongue-tied with women of quality but a rogue with the serving classes. When he is tricked into thinking that the home of Kate Hardcastle, the woman he has been sent by his father to woo, is a public house – and then falls in love with her in the guise of a barmaid – all manner of complications ensue.
Here, starring Freddie Fox as Marlow and Tanya Reynolds as Kate, it has been updated to the 1930s where a country house on Christmas Eve makes a festive setting for a bit of seasonal silliness.
There’s a pantomime quality to the action, with everyone acting large. But the root of She Stoops to Conquer’s longevity is that there is matter to its madness. Underneath the convolutions of its narrative is a sharp observation about class assumptions and the restrictions they impose. There’s also a satisfying sense in which everyone finally gets what they want – and behaves rather decently to one another in the process.
Even the monstrous Mrs Hardcastle, embodied with satisfying savagery by Greta Scaachi in bright blue eye shadow and turquoise glitter, has her heart in the right place. She loves her hopeless son, Tony Lumpkin (a confident and very funny Guy Hughes) who sets all the misunderstandings in action out of a sense of idle mischief and she is prepared to do anything to ensure his future.
On Anett Black and Neil Irish’s wood panelled set, with a stag’s head gazing down and a bright Christmas tree in the corner, director Tom Littler keeps the action tight and fast. He can’t do too much about the tiresome sub-plot involving a secondary couple (Robert Mountford and Sabrina Bartlett) who want to elope with her jewels, but when the focus is on the central duo the dialogue and the evening comes to life.
Fox is lovely as Charles, a nervous bundle of ticks and worries, blinking hard behind his glasses, wrapping his big coat around him, falling over his words. Even his arrogance is endearing; flinging his head back to catch a grape he cries ‘oh no’ as he nearly misses it. He’s a man constantly in flight from himself and his own feelings.
He’s matched by Reynolds who brings to Kate a joyful self-awareness and a sense of control of her own destiny. Her face is constantly mobile, registering each emotion from confusion to mock innocence to affection. The scene where she seduces him while sensuously dusting the furniture is a joy.
They are beautifully supported by David Horowitz as Mr Hardcastle, whose shock and outrage at being treated as an innkeeper in his own home, is carefully modulated by his real love for his daughter and his pleasure in her cleverness and goodness. His timing and his warmth add ballast to a cheering revival.