The Belle's Stratagem Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic
Mihaela Bodlovic

The Belle’s Stratagem

Reviewer's Rating

To send us skipping into spring with a smile on our lips, Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre has put on The Belle’s Stratagem, a rollicking, riotous dash through Georgian Edinburgh. Knife-sharp Letitia (Angela Hardie) has been promised to pleasant fop Doricourt (Angus Miller) since infancy but fears she may find herself trapped in a disinterested marriage. Aided by the sly Mrs Racket (Pauline Knowles), the saucy Mrs Ogle (Nicola Roy) and the increasingly emboldened Lady Frances Touchwood (Helen Mackay) Letitia hatches a plan to fascinate Doricourt, and ensure that he knows he is entering into marriage with an equal partner, not a meek inferior.

Throughout the whole play these four ladies, delightfully acted, drive the plot. They dance rings around the men, seeing through their schemes and keeping them firmly in check. However, this is no two-dimensional, women good, men bad rant. There is genuine affection and decency between the two genders and the whole play is really a cry for love, decency and equality on all sides.

To drive this home, The Belle’s Stratagem relies on whip-crack smart dialogue, and both director Tony Cownie (for his sensitive adaptation) and the cast (for their sharp delivery) deserve huge credit for showing off Hannah Cowley’s script to the greatest possible advantage.

By updating the language, and relocating the play from London to Edinburgh, Cownie ensures that he maximises the laughs to be had from his modern, Scottish audience. The witty dialogue is supported by a generous helping of slapstick, with Letitia’s cross-dressing father (Steven McNicoll) and the devoted but jealous Sir George Touchwood (Grant O’Rourke) providing plenty of comic relief. In the unpleasant and aptly named Courtall, Richard Conlon provides an excellent pantomime villain, and his comeuppance (at the hands of a man and a woman working together) is satisfying to everyone on and off the stage.

While the production’s staging is fairly conventional, the sets at the Lyceum are always a highlight, and designer Neil Murray has maintained the theatre’s high standards here. With the lifting or lowering of a curtain, and the twitch of a couple of chairs, Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town and medieval Old Town come and go with elegant simplicity.

The words ‘elegant simplicity’ do not apply to the spectacular costumes, which are a riot of colour, frills and bustles. It is hard to know whether to applaud the pink-lined, pale blue suit worn by the cosmopolitan Doricourt or to hide one’s eyes, while Mrs Ogle is a vision in vibrant magenta that remains seared on the retinas long after she has exited the stage.

Fortunately, the slapstick and finery are never allowed to overshadow the play’s main message – that women should be respected as the equals of men. Regrettably, we seem to require reminding of this almost as much today as we did 238 years ago when The Belle’s Stratagem first opened.

Hannah Cowley was a trail-blazing playwright who brought to life talented, clever, independent characters in her plays, and it is entirely pertinent that The Lyceum should choose to bring back to life her most successful play today. As recent events and revelations in almost every walk of life have illustrated, women are still shamefully mistreated and undervalued in society. The women of The Belle’s Stratagem show us that we undervalue women to the detriment of all.