The Belle's Stratagem @ Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

A delightfully witty adaptation of Hannah Cowley's 18th century romp, set to the familiar backdrop of Edinburgh’s New Town

Review by Tamarin Fountain | 20 Feb 2018

The style of The Belle's Stratagem echoes the Restoration comedies from which playwright Hannah Cowley no doubt took some inspiration. It’s fairly predictable stuff: mistaken identity, a masquerade ball, cads, dandies and wiley society ladies. As the plot progresses, the absurdity builds and amid the final scenes of some chaos, a satisfying climactic end is reached. This play is an effervescent piece of theatre that puts women to the fore, not least because it was written by a woman, at a time when few were doing that kind of thing.

The result is a piece of early feminism, and while the characters are intentionally farcical, the women are strong, likable, fiercely witty, and maintain the upper hand. This theme is aided by some thoroughly entertaining performances from Pauline Knowles (Mrs Racket), Nicola Roy (Mrs Ogle and Kitty), Helen Mackay (Lady Frances) and Angela Hardie (Letitia).

Adapted from Cowley's 1780 play of the same name by director and Lyceum regular Tony Cownie, this new version of The Belle’s Stratagem injects new life into this romantic comedy of manners. Perhaps that's thanks,in part, to the play's new location; fashionable Georgian Edinburgh. It’s full of local references, slang and colloquial vernacular, making it a quintessentially Scottish affair and drawing out an extra layer of delicious humour. The accents and characters are pronounced and over the top; at times it’s all a little reminiscent of panto.

Grant O’Rourke as Sir George is notably funny, using voice and physicality to create a character who regularly garners hearty laughs from the audience. But there’s plenty of subtle, clever wit alongside the more obvious gags, and humour is regularly drawn from elements of the city’s history, with some satire around the likes of the Nor Loch and Deacon Brodie’s exploits.  

There are plenty of visually appealing costumes to enjoy and a lovely engendering of a masquerade ball, with period dance and atmospheric stringed music. However, it does seem a little out of place that only the ladies for whom a change of dress was essential to the plot wore something different to the ball. Both Mrs Racket and Ogle stay in their same frocks throughout, seeming a little odd at this juncture (and with both having extremely distinctive wigs, complete clothing continuity isn’t necessary for recognition).  

The Belle’s Stratagem provides an evening of enjoyable light entertainment and the opportunity to escape for a couple of hours to a rose-tinted view of a bygone era. It’s not ground-breaking or breath-taking, but neither should it be. It is, however, a whole lot of fun.

The Belle's Strategem, at Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh until 10 Mar