The Belle’s Stratagem

at Royal Lyceum Theatre

* * * - -

Excellent comedy performances in a production that drags.

Image of The Belle’s Stratagem

Neil Murray’s set, a bright white Georgian interior, evokes the grandeur of a late-eighteenth century Edinburgh townhouse, whilst being plain enough to act as a blank canvas for the beautiful and colourful gowns and suits. Tony Cownie’s adaptation of Hannah Cowley’s comedy of manners brings the action to Edinburgh’s New Town, and the script is rammed full of local allusions and jokes to delight the Lyceum audience.

18th century style repartee dominates the dialogue. One character is rebuffed as being “like the Old Town: ancient and full of shit”; Sir George Touchwood, played by the hilarious Grant O’Rourke, having lost track of his wife Frances, whines, “has anybody seen my Fanny?!” Aside from all the wit, the script is dominated by exposition of a rather uninteresting plot, in which Letitia (Angela Hardie) attempts to convert the indifferent feelings of her fiancé Doricourt (Angus Miller) into disdain, in a plan to eventually win his ardour. For a farce it is too predictable, and not presented with much imagination, least of all in its staging – the cast is found too often delivering lines whilst stood in a gentle arc from stage left to stage right.

The ball scene, set in the Assembly Rooms, is a missed opportunity for some variety in both energy and spectacle. There is no sense that a party is taking place, and aside from the costume changes and softer lighting, this feels little different from any of the drawing room scenes that dominate the production. At its centre is a charming folk song from Hardie in tartan on a harp. Her acting throughout provides us with the most well-rounded character in the play, and she delivers madness, sadness and cool seduction all with great charisma.

The many outstanding comedy performances are the play’s saving grace. O’Rourke’s physicality as the distraught Sir George Touchwood when writhing on a chaise longue is a highlight, and he also shines in the smaller role of Geoffrey, butler to Doricourt. Nicola Roy and Pauline Knowles form a wonderful double act as the fashionable widows Mrs Ogle and Mrs Racket, tempting the innocent Lady Touchwood (Helen Mackay) into society. Roy displays her comic versatility as Kitty, the prostitute hired to imitate Lady Touchwood, landing technically tricky jokes with impeccable timing. 

The script is well-written and mostly entertaining – but relentless wit and exposition become tiresome by the end. The production could have learned from what critic Susan Mansfield writes in the programme about Cowley: towards the end of her career “the theatre world was changing, with bigger auditoriums no longer suitable for intimate witty dialogue.” This play would have been improved if it had adapted the original for the size of the modern Lyceum, as well as for its Edinburgh location.