The strength, and weakness, of theatre is that it’s a gamble. Often quite an extensive one if you find yourself gravitating towards the good stuff. So I’m just going to come out right off the back and tell you this one’s a sparkler. The material is great, the execution is spot on – it’s well-conceived, well-designed, and most importantly of all, it’s great fun.
The Belle’s Stratagem started life in 1780, the product of playwright Hannah Cowley – herself a theatrical trailblazer. Now transplanted by adaptor and director Tony Cownie into Edinburgh New Town in the 1780s, it keeps the subversive comedy of the original and adds a whole lot of its own. Headstrong and quick-witted Letitia Hardy (played winningly by Angela Hardie) realises that her fiancé is indifferent to her, and resolves not to go down without a fight: and if making him hate her is the only way to catch his attention, then so be it. The gossip of Edinburgh society plays out against Neil Murray’s nearly monochrome set reminiscent of architectural drawings or woodcut cartoons, setting the tone as both elegant and with tongue firmly in cheek (in contrast, the costume design shows a robust attitude towards hot pink and turquoise). On one hand, the quickfire wit and great rapport among a cast clearly having a great time make The Belle’s Strategem well worth watching by themselves. On the other hand, the dominance of strong (and often scheming) women, calling the shots and driving the plot, feels right at home in 2018.
Pauline Knowles and Nicola Roy as the brightly-coloured, fast-talking double act of Mrs Racket and Mrs Ogle light up the stage every time they are on it, and Grant O’Rourke and Helen Mackay as the “odd couple” Lord and Lady Touchwood add depth and empathy to characters that might easily have been dismissible as a punchline. And that’s the biggest strength of The Belle’s Stratagem: warmth without sacrificing the sharpness of humour. The line between familiarity and predictability is a tough one to tread. This is great.
Photo courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic.
The Belle’s Stratagem runs until tomorrow at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh.