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The Belle's Stratagem

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Here’s a fine and surprising discovery: a Georgian comedy romp by Hannah Cowley not seen since the 19th century and dating from 1780, just three years after The School for Scandal.

There are elements of Sheridan in Jessica Swale’s ebullient and handsomely presented production, and a strained hint of the play whose title is alluded to, George Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem.

So, we have a gossip factory, older relatives stitching up younger ones, and a spritely heroine, Letitia Hardy (deliciously played by the sparkling Gina Beck) who adopts a series of radical feminist wiles and determines to stir the diffident beau she’s been betrothed to since birth, the arrogant and cynical Doricourt (Michael Lindall), newly returned from the Grand Tour, into genuine affection.

Cowley writes sharply and amusingly, though she’s no match, alas, for her brilliantly eloquent Irish masters. All the same, she handles the plot particularly well, not to mention the sub-plots and a series of climactic social encounters in Lincoln’s Inn and at a masked ball.

And Swale’s lively casting includes such unexpected delights as Jackie Clune as a scheming Lady Ogle as well as one of the girl band singers in baby bonnets; Robin Soans barking away as Letitia’s bone-headed dad in between stints on the harpsichord; and Hannah Spearritt, formerly of S Club 7, simpering sweetly as the newlywed country wife of Joseph McNab’s comically paranoid town squire.

Simon Kenny’s design is unusually lavish for the tattered fringe, placing the action on a square parquet floor bordered by heavy velvet curtains, with a clever mix of antique furniture and wonderfully colourful costumes.

There are some cheeky ensemble numbers, too, composed by Laura Forrest-Hay, and some flat-out funny explosions, such as Soans’s sudden decision to get involved at the ball (“I’ll go as a woman!”) and the hero’s sudden veering into madness in order to scare off Christopher Logan’s foppish and interfering Flutter.

Logan is still working hard on his Kenneth Williams flared-nostril and acid nudge-nudge impersonation, and I do hope he gets it out of his system soon. He’s a good actor who needs to shake himself up.

But the fans, mask and swagger side of things is all freshly handled, and there an anchoring presence of a wily old bird, Letitia’s aunt, Mrs Racket, from the estimable Maggie Steed; and a couple of jolly beaux from Marc Baylis as a devious lothario, Courtall, caught out by a prostitute, and Jeremy Joyce as a sound and sensible prig who manages to avoid being a pain in the neck.


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