THE BELLE’S STRATAGEM
by Hannah Cowley.
Southwark Playhouse Shipwright Yard corner of Tooley St and Bermondsey St SE1 2TF To 1 October 2011.
Mon-Sat 7.45pm Mat Sat 3.15pm.
Runs 2hr 30min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7407 0234.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 12 September.
Lively revival of lively-minded comedy.
It’s worth taking a look at Hannah Cowley (1743-1809), though among women writers written-out of history she hardly matches Elizabeth Inchbald (1753-1821), whose Lovers’ Vows Jane Austen chose for her amateur actors in Mansfield Park.
The Belle’s Stratagem was doubtless popular in 1780. But that’s a thin reason for revival, which could inflict productions of No Sex Please, We’re British, a West End winner throughout the 1970s, on 23rd-century theatregoers.
Yet that wouldn’t be a bad subtitle for Cowley’s comedy. Letitia and Doricourt were meant for each other, from children, by their families, who put a heavy price on any refusal to wed. Letitia loves Doricourt (though she’s worth at least three of him). But he’s been to France, and returned with a taste for more oomph and ooh-la-la than English ladies supply.
Which inspires Letitia to think beyond settling to a respectable married life of good works and quiet desperation. She plans to turn him against her, foretelling Pirandello by beguiling him in disguise at a masked ball, thereby becoming his love and aversion.
It’s a revelatory contrast to male dramas. Though virtue’s never in danger. Unlike such Restoration comedies as William Wycherley’s The Country Wife, sex stays wreathed in sentiment. Wycherley’s Horner went to France as a strategy to gain access to wives. Doricourt merely broadened his aspirations there.
Cowley’s secondary plot derives from Wycherley’s comedy, without its danger or vivacity. Sir George Touchwood, ridiculously jealous in attempting to keep his wife from learning London ways, is outwitted not by a lover but Miss Ogle and Mrs Racket. The wanton men face humiliation.
Jackie Clune and, yet more pointedly, Maggie Steed excel as this pair, while Robin Soans brings his focused intensity to self-confident prognosticator Hardy. The younger cast can be less confident handling the shape of the language, though both Gina Beck and Hannah Spearitt speak (and sing) stylishly.
Laura Forrest-Hay’s music skilfully bridges 18th and 20th-centuries, helping Jessica Swale’s energetic production, which captures the rapid swirl of a rumour-mongering society while also capturing Cowley’s focus on the intelligence and activity of her main female characters.
Saville: Jeremy Joyce.
Dick/Tradesman/Gentleman/Pilgrim: Mark Fountain.
Courtall: Marc Baylis.
Kitty Willis/Porter/Letitia’s Maid/Lady at Auction: Cassandra Bond.
Crowquill: Samuel Dent.
Silvertongue/Frenchman/Thomas/Mask: Nigel Munson.
Doricourt: Michael Lindall.
Flutter: Christopher Logan.
Mrs Racket: Maggie Steed.
Letitia Hardy: Gina Beck.
Mr Hardy: Robin Soans.
Sir George Touchwood: Joseph Macnab.
Mrs Fagg/Tradesperson/Hardy’s Servant/Sally: Holly Blair.
Miss Ogle: Jackie Clune.
Lady Frances Touchwood: Hannah Spearitt.
Villers: Tim Dorsett.
Director: Jessica Swale.
Designer: Simon Kenny.
Lighting: Christopher Nairne.
Music: Laura Forrest-Hay.
Assistant director: Jemma Cross.