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The Belle’s Stratagem review at Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh – ‘a sparkling, ribald revival’

Pauline Knowles and Nicola Roy in The Belle's Stratagem at Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic Pauline Knowles and Nicola Roy in The Belle's Stratagem at Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic
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Hannah Cowley’s biting 1780 comedy of manners has been transplanted to Georgian Edinburgh for a production that feels both timely and timeless.

Director Tony Cownie’s adaptation draws on Scottish traditions of music hall and variety. Angela Hardie’s headstrong Letitia was betrothed in childhood to Angus Miller’s aloof Doricourt. He is just back from his Grand Tour and thinks little of Scottish women, while she is determined that if she can’t win his heart, she will turn his indifference to hate.

The subplot, in which Grant O’Rourke’s bumptious Touchwood’s attempts to keep his young country-born wife away from the hands of the fashionable ladies, provides broader comedy – close to pantomime at times. Helen Mackay displays a beautifully light touch as the ingenue, Lady Frances Touchwood, while the double act of Nicola Roy and Pauline Knowles, as the two fashionable widows Mrs Ogle and Mrs Racket, is as sharp as it is scathing.

Cownie marshals his large cast with real intelligence. The doubling of the various servants provides plenty of room for caricature of Edinburgh types. The transformation of busybody Flutter (John Ramage) into a star-rating obsessed journalist is particularly biting.

Neil Murray’s design, with its cardboard cutout-style set and over-the-top dresses and wigs, feels particularly in keeping with the flippant nature of the plot.

In part a response to George Farquhar’s 1707 rural comedy The Beaux’ Stratagem, Cowley’s play is radical in the way it places women at its heart. Cownie’s version is a celebration of that radicalism and a comic, often ribald, reminder not to forget it

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Sparkling revival of Hannah Cowley's comedy, relocated to Georgian Edinburgh