The Belle’s Stratagem

Feb 18 2018 | By More

★★★★☆   Exemplary comedy

Royal Lyceum Theatre: Thurs 15 Feb – Sat 10 Mar 2018
Review by Hugh Simpson

Vivacity, wit and downright stupidity abound in The Belle’s Stratagem at the Lyceum, a production of verve and cheek that produces as much laughter as anything seen on the Edinburgh stage in recent years.

Hannah Cowley’s 1780 comedy of manners is adapted and directed by Tony Cownie, and tells of young Letitia Hardy, betrothed to Doricourt since childhood. Doricourt, recently returned from the Grand Tour, regards the women of Scotland with disdain, and Letitia accordingly sets in motion a scheme to make her fiancé either fall in love with her – or hate her, which is apparently just as good.

Angela Hardie and Angus Miller in The Belle’s Stratagem. Pic Mihaela Bodlovic

No-one who saw the same director’s rip-roaring version of The Venetian Twins will be surprised by this stylish, colourful comedy. Indeed, the moving of the setting to Georgian Edinburgh, with its opportunities for local references, brings this even closer to pantomime territory.

There are certainly plenty of knowing asides, and jokes both old and new, in a script drawing on several strands of the Scottish traditions of variety and comedy. At times the playing to the gallery verges on the shameless, and there is one moment – where Richard Conlon’s Courtall expounds his villainous plans to the audience – when the temptation to boo is almost irresistible.

Whether this goes too far will depend largely on personal preference and tolerance for keech jokes, but anyone who appreciates skilful comedy performances will find a great deal to appreciate. The ability to wring the maximum possible humour from a situation without killing it, is beautifully displayed by Steven McNicoll, whose blustering Provost and wheezing servant are equally vital characterisations.

Similarly, John Ramage’s instantly recognisable journalist, obsessed by gossip and star ratings, is a beautiful creation. Nicola Roy, in another double role, has unbeatable comic timing.

contemporary relevance

There is more than just knockabout fun here, however. Cowley’s original story, originally partly a response to Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem, sought to give female characters more of a driving force in theatrical plots. Even if not all of the attempts to update things ring true, the contemporary relevance is clear.

John Kielty, Helen Mackay, Richard Conlon, Nicola Roy, and Pauline Knowles in The Belle’s Stratagem. Pic Mihaela Bodlovic

This is helped by some performances which go beyond humorous effect and are more affecting. Grant O’Rourke’s comedic brilliance almost goes without saying, but there is something about his insecure man-child Sir George Touchwood that is pathetic in both senses and is thoroughly believable. Helen Mackay, as his naive wife Frances, also has considerable authenticity behind the stereotypical character.

Pauline Knowles, meanwhile, gives the widowed Mrs Racket a thoroughly convincing and utterly modern air. John Kielty’s Saville also has an ambiguity about him that seems very contemporary.

Not all of the characters lend themselves so readily to understanding by modern audiences. The ‘Belle’ of the title, her intended and her ‘stratagem’ could come across as unfathomable, but Angela Hardy gives Letitia such life and individuality that it largely convinces. Angus Miller’s Doricourt, meanwhile, has an air of befuddled haughtiness that makes him more likeable than he might be.

melodramatically conniving

Conlon’s Courtall almost needs a moustache to twirl, so melodramatically conniving is he, but the role is discharged with considerable glee, and contrasts excellently with the same performer’s portrayal of the character’s more sober father the Bailie.

That the story hangs together as well as it does, and sustains its energy throughout, is largely down to Cownie. Not only is his adaptation constantly funny and inventive, his handling of his ensemble and of the more farcical elements is exemplary. He also knows when to drop the pace slightly, and there are some fetching tableaux in front of Neil Murray’s almost cartoonish, grey depictions of the New Town, whose monochrome nature sets off the splurges of colour in the costumes beautifully.

In the end – despite the contemporary parallels – any attempts at universality come second here to more home-grown concerns. It is difficult to imagine a production that, for example, gets big laughs simply by using the word ‘fantoosh’ travelling that well.

There are more than enough laughs here, however. Indeed, there may be more than expected – the only real problem at the moment is an impatience that leads some of the cast to tread on the laughter and lines can be lost as a result. That will surely settle down, adding to a production that already has a wonderful comic rhythm thanks to an excellent ensemble and a director at the top of his game.

Running time 2 hours 30 minutes including one interval
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, EH3 9AX
Thursday 15 February – Saturday 10 March 2018
Tues – Sat evenings at 7.30 pm. Matinees Wed and Sat at 2.00 pm.
Information and tickets:

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Twitter: @lyceumtheatre.

Angus Miller,Richard Conlon,Pauline Knowles,Angela Hardie,Grant O’Rourke,Helen Mackay and John Ramage. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic


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