The Theatreguide.London Review
Orange Tree Theatre Spring 2014
Dion Boucicault's all-but-lost 1847 play (and cheers to the Orange Tree for once again doing the National Theatre's work for it) is part comedy of manners, part social criticism and part sentimental drama.
The Nineteenth Century was comfortable with such mixtures. But modern audiences may find the various strands, as effective as they each are on their own, occasionally clashing and getting in each other's way.
The title refers literally to a young ladies' finishing school whose curriculum consists entirely in the arts and tricks of catching a rich and titled husband. But outside the school almost everyone else is plotting advancement in some devious way.
A poor man sets himself up as a capitalist, which in his terms means getting others to invest in his non-existent companies. A man of ancient name and almost as venerable debts is desperate to marry his daughter or himself off to someone rich.
The daughter rejects the poor lad she loves (who – no great spoiler alert here – will turn out to be not all that poor) in her campaign for a title. A good man disguises himself as a villain, all the better to be able to help those he admires.
Everyone plots, everyone schemes and almost everyone gets their comeuppance, with – and here comes some of the sentimentality – only those who see the error of their ways finding happy endings.
There are excellent comic scenes, such as when two deeply-in-debt people, each thinking the other rich, use all their wiles to catch each other, and later when they discover their mistakes.
There are well-written speeches of social commentary, both from the cynical point of view – the capitalist on how everything is measured by money – and the moral – a chastened husband-hunter on the importance of true love.
And there are moments of effective eye-misting sentiment – a father's meeting with the son who never knew him, the reunion of the true lovers.
The only problem is that these things keep interrupting each other. A comic scene stops dead for a long moralistic speech, a touching scene is punctuated by a gag.
The play runs close to three hours, and director Auriol Smith might have done some judicious pruning, particularly of the static social commentary sections, to bring out the best of what remained.
In a largely young cast it is the veterans – Paul Shelley as the desperate father, Tony Turner as the disguised benefactor, Sabina Franklyn as the schoolmistress – who are most successful, though Evelyn Lockley displays spark and personality as the most determined and devious of the husband-hunters.
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Review - The School For Scheming - Orange Tree Theatre 2014