First published in The Times, Tuesday February 20 2018
While Hannah Cowley is hardly a household name today, the playwright was well known to audiences in the late 18th century, at a time when the theatre was at its peak as a popular art form. Her most successful work, The Belle’s Stratagem, which premiered in 1780, and is a response to George Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem, was one of the most revived comedies of the period.
While originally set in London, the action transposes neatly to Georgian Edinburgh in Tony Cownie’s sparkling adaptation, with references to the burgeoning New Town, the loyal toast to the “King over the Water” and cameos from luminaries of the period, including the fiddler, Niel Gow.
The central thread in an intricate script is the scheme hatched by Letitia Hardy (Angela Hardie) to enrapture her betrothed, the handsome Doricourt (Angus Miller), who has hitherto shown scant interest. A secondary plot revolves around various attempts to corrupt the virtue of Lady Frances (Helen Mackay), the innocent wife of Sir George Touchwood (Grant O’Rourke), of whom the ungainly aristocrat is so jealous and protective that he has kept her a virtual prisoner, away from the temptations of fashionable society.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
Having set a number of hares running in a busy first half, the play culminates in a beautifully staged masked ball at the city’s Assembly Rooms, with Cownie, who also directs, and the well choreographed cast, making plentiful use of Neil Murray’s puppet theatre-inspired set: all neo-classical symmetry with doors at either end for the increasingly uproarious comings and goings.
Hardie shines as the resourceful heroine, sending the hoodwinked Doricourt half-deranged with her sharp wit and many accomplishments, which include dancing, playing the harp and singing. O’Rourke, meanwhile, who triumphed in Cownie’s adaption of Goldoni’s The Venetian Twins, also at the Lyceum, is very funny as the paranoid Sir George while doubling as a haughty butler.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
In a play that is partly a critique of the injustices of marriage, the female characters, including Pauline Knowles and Nicola Roy as a couple of merry widows, are rightly to the fore. Still, Cownie’s adaptation provides ones of those rare occasions in the theatre in which the riches are distributed equitably among the ten-strong ensemble.
The script is generously salted with one-liners (“Is that the kind of compliment you learned in Paris?” says Knowles’s Mrs Racket. “It has the air of cheese.”). The actors, appearing in Murray’s gorgeous, colourful costumes against the near-monochrome backdrop, do wonders by Cowley’s play and Cownie’s script by treating all the frivolity with the straight-faced seriousness it requires.