The Belle’s Stratagem is a play that even the most notoriously cross-referential critic would have trouble comparing to another version, as ‘lady playwright’ Hannah Cowley’s 1780 play hasn’t graced the stage since a regional production in 1888.
While Hannah Cowley was unusually well-educated for a woman of her time and The Belle’s Stratagem was a big hit in its day, it disappeared rapidly when Richard Brinsley Sheridan became manager of Drury Lane and removed this exhibition of cunning, outspoken females from the repertoire. If kind readers will forgive me for cross-referencing, I found the modern elements of Jessica Swale’s concept reminiscent of Deborah Warner’s recent production of Sheridan’s The School for Scandal at the Barbican, but the execution couldn’t be more different. In contrast to Warner’s aggressive method, Swale’s fluid and warm-hearted production establishes a convivial relationship between the cast and audience, releasing the mischievousness of the eighteenth century that is often suppressed under staid artificiality, accentuated by Simon Kenny’s vibrant design and a parade of brightly coloured gowns.
The Westminster Chimes and Lily Allen’s ‘Why Would I Wanna Be Anywhere Else’ sung in counterpoint sets the scene for Swale’s playful approach with unexpected touches that are charming rather than jarring (including a lace capped rendition of the Spice Girls’ ‘Wannabe’). The frothy plot belies Cowley’s forward-thinking ideas: Miss Letitia Hardy and Mr Doricourt have been betrothed from birth but haven’t seen each other since childhood. Letitia, disappointed by her intended’s lack of enthusiasm about marrying her, is determined not to marry without mutual love (even – heaven forbid – preferring to remain single) and hatches a surprising plan to tease him, to appal him and to eventually win his passion at a masquerade ball. Meanwhile, Lady Frances Touchwood, a young wife kept in solitary confinement by her jealous husband, is taken under the wing of Mrs Racket and Miss Ogle who contrive to turn her into a ‘fine lady’, “A creature for whom nature has done much, but education more,” the very kind that her husband finds so threatening.
Amongst the capable ensemble, Gina Beck (who leads the songs with her lovely voice) is enchanting as ingénue Letitia, a true lady of spirit who exposes the double standards of women who enter marriage straight from finishing school, while men are free to roam. Michael Lindall’s lithe Doricourt provides an impressive display of feigned madness, improvising at one point with my wine glass. As the secondary couple, Hannah Spearritt’s sheltered Lady Frances makes a stand by refusing to let her husband continue treating her like a child, with Joseph MacNab blustering effusively as the insecure Sir George, a husband with an interest in choosing his wife’s gowns. The more mature ladies are represented by Jackie Clune as the acerbic spinster Miss Ogle and the wonderful Maggie Steed as Mrs Racket, a widow dressed in scarlet who refuses to conform to conventional norms, a subversive influence on the young ladies under her guidance. Christopher Logan’s bitchy rumourmonger Flutter manages to stay on the right side of grotesque and Robin Soans is a highly entertaining presence as Letitia’s cross-dressing father.
While it’s perplexing that The Belle’s Stratagem has remained in mothballs for so long, its obscure status heightens the sense of what a treat this production is. Swale and her cast have created a triumphant spectacle of Georgian girl power that’s accompanied by the most delightful programme I’ve ever received – an exquisite piece of craftsmanship in itself.
The Belle’s Stratagem plays at Southwark Playhouse until October 1st.