The Belle's Stratagem

Hannah Cowley

Red Handed Theatre Company

Southwark Playhouse

(2011)

Review by Philip Fisher

Jessica Swale must surely soon become a household name. Her lively version of The Rivals at the same venue was no flash in the pan, as this delightful new production of Hannah Cowley's feminist classic from 1780, The Belle's Stratagem, indisputably proves.

The staging uses virtually no props but is adorned with this director's signature, backdated versions of today's girly hits. Songs by the likes of The Spice Girls, Sugababes and Lily Allen are given antique arrangements for drums and harpsichord by composer Laura Forrest-Hay and sung by a female quartet of country cousins, sometimes supported by the whole of a 16-strong cast.

The tale of gender politics and stereotyping is a response to Farquhar's The Beaux' Stratagem with the battle of the sexes played out on numerous levels.

The central story is that of beautiful, flouncing Letitia Hardy played by Gina Beck who sings as well as she acts, and that is high praise, and her arrogant beau (or not). Michael Lindall convincingly portrays Doricourt a man so handsome that he could easily be mistaken for one of those Olympic rowers whom will inevitably collect a gold medal next summer.

A marriage is made by fathers, including the reliable Robin Soans as old man Hardy, a genial buffer gifted with foresight which is unfortunately nowhere near as accurate as Cassandra's. However, the young rebel as they must, providing much fun.

Providing a contrast are Joseph Macnab's lugubrious Sir George Touchwood , a man scared to let his pretty wife Fanny, played by S Club 7's Hannah Spearritt, out of his sight. This jealousy nearly leads to disaster in the play's central scene, a masked ball. There, Lady T is very nearly seduced by the vain but not especially wicked Courtall (Marc Bayliss)

The ingredients are spiced up by a whole team of willing gossips led by Christopher Logan's deliciously camp and indiscreet Flutter who is willingly supported by Maggie Steed and Jackie Clune as Mrs Rackett and Miss Ogle, single ladies of a certain age, not that they would admit to even half of it.

The Belle's Stratagem eventually advances to a traditionally happy ending, thanks to the cunning plan of its heroine and the innate decency of her counterpart, a woman who recognises that ruin will inevitably descend if honour is not maintained.

Jessica Swale does a lovely job of marshalling a large cast and provides rich entertainment for 2½ hours, well supported by her whole creative team.