The Belle's Stratagem

Hannah Cowley, adapted by Tony Cownie
Lyceum Theatre Company
Lyceum, Edinburgh

Nicola Roy as Mrs Ogle, Helen Mackay as Lady Frances Touchwood and Pauline Knowles as Mrs Racket Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

The New Town may be the Enlightenment in stone but this version The Belle's Stratagem manages to be the Enlightenment on stage.

The play first opened on February 22, 1780 in London, but Cownie has transposed the action to Edinburgh though kept the era the same.

It works incredibly well, staying true to the play's humorous intent and playing on the Edinburgh audience's love of historical and geographical jokes about the city.

Cowley wrote the play as a response to Farquhar's The Beaux Stratagem, so it is a typical Restoration Comedy, but with the women getting a little more of the action.

Letitia Hardy (Angela Hardie) is due to be married to the handsome Doricourt (Angus Miller) newly returned from the continent, only he is less than impressed with her on their first meeting having become bored of Scottish women.

Letitia decides to win him back with an elaborate strategy, but, though this plot gives the play its name, there is another equally important narrative.

Meanwhile Lady Frances Touchwood (Helen Mackay) is introduced to Edinburgh life by Mrs Racket (Pauline Knowles) and Mrs Ogle (Nicola Roy), to the dismay of her husband Sir George (Grant O'Rourke).

There are many doors, deceptions and delightful dresses, in a style and exuberance quite close to pantomime, which is probably quite like how the play's first audience's would have experienced it.

The women have no problem outwitting the foolish men, from the nasty cad Courtall (Richard Conlon) to the slippery journalist Flutter (John Rampage). Although Provost Hardy (Steven McNicoll) and Saville (John Kielty) manage their own schemes too.

It might seem like there are a lot of schemes to keep track of, but don't be fooled, the characters only keep themselves in the dark, it is perfectly clear to the audience what is afoot.

Cownie's script as with his other adaptions digs deep into the rich seam of Scots dialect, especially for characters like woman of ill repute Kitty (Nicola Roy), you ken.

Roy does a great bit of doubling up, across different classes, as do O'Rourke and McNicoll playing different masters and servants.

The set encapsulates Adam's New Town architecture and Kally Lloyd-Jones's choreography to Kielty's music makes you feel like you are at back in the early days of the Assembly Rooms, pre-Jamie.

It's a light-hearted romp through the Enlightenment, but also a sad reminder that many female writers have been forgotten by history.

Reviewer: Seth Ewin