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The School for Scheming

As the curtain falls on Sam Walters’ 43-year reign at the Orange Tree – Paul Miller takes over as artistic director in July – this little known mid-19th century comedy, directed by Walters’ wife, Auriol Smith, is appropriately representative of their sterling work as theatrical excavators and resuscitators.

While other producing theatres might have shied away from such arcane relics of the Victorian age, the Orange Tree has embraced them with relish and flair.

This one was written by the prolific Irish actor, playwright and impresario Dion Boucicault in 1847, 10 years into Victoria’s reign, and like a lot of cutting edge drama and literature of the time, concerns itself with social and fiscal status, the haves and have nots of London society.

Once the haves, now the have nots, the Hon Claude Plantaganet and his nubile daughter Helen are teetering on the brink of ruination. The wastrel Claude is convinced he can settle his considerable debts by marrying the proprietor of a finishing school for young ladies, and also by marrying Helen off to some wealthy aristocrat or other, despite Helen’s secret love for the penniless Craven.

You get the feeling that Boucicault was more interested in satirical point-scoring than constructing a fluent narrative, and there are far too many unconnected characters and plotlines for comfort. But Smith, undaunted by the play’s shortcomings, manages to produce an evening that is as enlightening as it is entertaining.

Paul Shelley is in hilariously expansive and roguish form as Plantaganet with Imogen Sage deliciously noble as his self-sacrificing daughter. The scene-stealing turn of the evening comes from Oliver Gomm as the pea-brained fashion victim aristocrat Lord Fipley whom Helen is prepared to marry to save the family honour.

Nick Smurthwaite