The Belle’s Stratagem by Hannah Cowley, adapted and directed by Tony Cownie is at The Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh from 15 February to 10 March, and much to my surprise is one of my favourite theatre productions in many years. Normally I don’t review comedy as nothing dates faster than “contemporary comedy” and this restoration comedy (although it is more of a comedy of manners being first performed in 1780 and outside the main restoration period of 1660 – 1710) signalled many potential problems for me at first examination. Any comedy also relies on the sharpness of the script and just as importantly the ability of the performing cast to get the comedic timing spot on, and many comedies fail in at least one of these counts, often on both. I also had some reservations about the work being transposed in location from London to Georgian Edinburgh.
The Belle’s Stratagem has however proven all of my potential misgivings wrong on all accounts as it is a wonderful piece of theatre with a razor sharp script full of wit delivered at a fast pace, and a cast that knows just how to deliver comedy lines and timing. The script retains enough of the original work and skilfully blends new material that is both historical and contemporary into a seamless production. Hannah Cowley was, against contemporary opinion, one of the few women playwrights of her time, and this work with its emphasis on a woman’s status and individual identity must have been nothing short of revolutionary at its time, and even now, after over 200 years since its first performance, that spirit of “women’s rights” is still there and more fittingly so as we celebrate 100 years of votes for women in 2018. Hannah Cowley as a writer and a free thinking woman was far ahead of her male contemporaries.
A work like this requires a collaborative effort on-stage, and this is one of the few times when I have to say that the cast were for me perfect in their roles with principal characters supported in full by the rest of the cast, so it is unfair to pick out any one person here for special mention –everyone was integral to the overall performance tonight.
Richard Conlon - Bailie/Courtall
Angela Hardie - Letitia
John Kielty - Saville
Pauline Knowles - Mrs Racket
Steven McNicoll - Provost
Helen Mackay - Lady Frances
Angus Miller - Doricourt
Grant O'Rourke - Sir George
John Ramage - Flutter
Nicola Roy - Mrs Ogle/Kitty
Also, so often forgotten in a work like this a very good creative team consisting of
Adapted and Directed by Tony Cownie
Designer - Neil Murray
Lighting Designer - Tina MacHugh
Composer - John Kielty
Choreographer - Kally Lloyd-Jones
The final piece of the jig-saw puzzle fitting everything together in this production is the one most overlooked at times, and that is the venue. The Lyceum Theatre is a wonderful Victorian theatre, and sometimes we forget just how lucky we are in Edinburgh to still have a theatre like this to enjoy performances in. The Lyceum Theatre is just the right size for a production like this with a closeness to the stage and an intimacy with the performers that can make or break a production like this and allows The Belle’s Stratagem to be contemporary theatre and a link to theatre of the past simultaneously.
Review by Tom King