It begins with a fine rhyming prologue framed as an apology; but in truth, there’s no need for regrets, as Tony Cownie’s new Lyceum version of The Belle’s Stratagem merrily plucks the action from London, where the play was first seen in 1780, and sets it down on the streets of Edinburgh’s flourishing New Town eight years later.
The Belle’s Stratagem, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh ****
The Return, Eden Court Theatre, Inverness ****
Written by rare female playwright Hannah Cowley as a riposte to George Farquhar’s 1707 hit The Beaux’ Stratagem – and full of enlightenment chit-chat about how attitudes to women have changed in recent times – the play in fact mainly uses ideas and devices already familiar from the English stage comedy of the previous century. There are plenty of sexist little jokes about how women are this and men are that, all presented as a source of harmless merriment; and there is nothing in the script more radical than Millamant’s famous list of requirements for marriage from Congreve’s The Way Of The World, written 80 years earlier.
If The Belle’s Stratagem is not a particularly radical piece of theatre, though, it is a hugely entertaining one; particularly when given a thorough and irreverent Edinburgh rewrite by Cownie, and brought to the Lyceum stage by a ten-strong comic ensemble fairly bursting with comic talent, from Angela Hardie’s no-holds-barred heroine Letitia (daughter of the provost), through Helen McKay’s beautifully-judged turn in the classic character of Lady Frances, the shy country wife seduced by the pleasures of the town, to a superb double act from Pauline Knowles and Nicola Roy as merry widows Racket and Ogle. Racket’s slurred: “I won’t insult your intelligence; we’ve had a few drinks,” as she conveys Ogle home in a barrow from an Assembly Rooms ball wins the single biggest laugh of the night.
As for the men – well, with Grant O’Rourke in inimitable form as Lady Frances’s podgily possessive husband George, the magnificent Steven McNicoll doubling and tripling roles as everyone from the provost to a wrecked old manservant, and John Ramage flitting insidiously from drawing room to tavern as gossip columnist for the local rag, it’s hard to imagine any Edinburgh city comedy being better served. Neil Murray’s design is a thing of memorable wit and beauty, a shifting symphony of sketched New Town facades made brilliant by period costumes in a range of fabulous acid colours.
And if the whole play is one tedious twist in the plot too long – and the constant wee self-conscious jokes about Scottishness a shade wearing, 30 years after we were supposed to have left all that behind – those are more-than-bearable flaws in a show so full of joyous wit and invention; and of fine comic actors of both sexes fighting the old battles in impressive Edinburgh style, all fur trim, fine enlightenment values, and no knickers at all.
If Hannah Cowley’s Letitia has to use all her wits to win the man she wants, the heroine of Ellie Stewart’s new play The Return is also a woman prepared to take massive risks for love. Based on the classic story of Martin Guerre – the man who suddenly disappears from his village, to be replaced seven years later by an apparent stranger who gradually takes on his identity – Stewart’s version focuses on Martin’s wife Bertrande, who, after seven lonely years tending her sheep and raising her son in the foothills of the Pyrenees, falls deeply in love with the newly-arrived stranger, and conceives the plan of simply telling the village that he is the returned Martin.
In Philip Howard’s new studio production for Eden Court Theatre – now set to tour across Scotland – the story is told in a glorious, beautifully-balanced combination of strong, spare dialogue, eloquent movement, and haunting Languedoc song, with Emilie Patry and Thoren Ferguson powerful and elemental as Bertrande and the stranger, and musician-performer Greg Sinclair playing a key role as Bertrande’s son, the little observer who is also the show’s musician, marking out the story in deep cello riffs and cries.
The first of the two short acts is a near-perfect piece of luminous theatrical storytelling; and if, towards the end, the story seems a shade more rushed and confused, on Kenneth MacLeod’s slightly overcrowded set of artificial rocks, it’s held together throughout by the golden thread of Emilie Patry’s central performance, strong, passionate and true.
*The Belle’s Stratagem is at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 10 March. The Return in Livingston, Stirling, Cumbernauld, Glasgow and St Andrews this week, at the Traverse Theatre 28 February-1 March, and on tour until 10 March.