Grant O Rourke

The Belle’s Stratagem

21/02/18

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The chances are you may not have heard of playwright and poet, Hannah Cowley. I certainly hadn’t until I read the programme for the Lyceum’s latest offering. Back in the 1700s, however, her work was in great demand and, in 1780, her biggest success, The Belle’s Stratagem (a witty repost to George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem), was selling out the 2000 seater Drury Lane Theatre in London. Over the ensuing centuries, her name has passed into obscurity, so it’s particularly satisfying to see her work brought once more to the public attention in this sprightly adaptation, written and directed by Tony Cownie. The action has been relocated to Edinburgh, where the New Town is taking shape, and where the villainous Deacon Brodie is gleefully helping himself to the belongings of its inhabitants.

The belle of the title is Letitia (Angela Hardie), who is betrothed to the wealthy and handsome Doricourt (Angus Miller), much to the delight of her father, Provost Hardy (Steven McNicholl), who welcomes the financial advancement this will bring. But though Letitia is head-over-heels in love with Doricourt, he seems quite indifferent to her charms, so she devises a devious stratagem that will make him fully appreciate her qualities. The first step, however, is to make him despise her…

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a single-strand narrative. There are subplots aplenty, not least the story of Sir George Touchwood (Grant O’ Rourke), who has been deliberately keeping his naive wife, Lady Frances (Helen Mackay), away from the distractions of high society. There’s the newspaperman, Flutter (John Ramage), an unabashed gossip-monger, who loves nothing more than writing about the outrageous events of the well-to-do and who has no compunction in inventing much of his juicier material, and there’s Mrs Racket (Pauline Knowles), who is adept at arranging and organising the running of everyone’s lives from behind the scenes.

Cownie handles his material with a deft touch, consistently bringing his audience to gales of laughter as the various blunders, pratfalls and witty one-liners are unleashed. The production looks ravishing too, the brightly-hued costumes blazing against the simple monochrome set. Though many of the cast double up on their roles, there’s never any doubt about who is who at any given time and, as the events hurtle towards the delicious possibilities of a masked ball, the stage seems to virtually pulsate with energy. Fast, furious and frenetic, this is a real crowdpleaser. It’s also strangely prescient, as the women in the story refuse to conform to the conventions they’re constrained by, and forge their own paths towards happiness and fulfilment.

Don’t miss this – its a riotous and gleeful experience that will send you on your way with a great big smile on your face.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Venetian Twins

Unknown

02/05/15

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Carlo Goldoni is, of course, the playwright whose earlier work, A Servant of Two Masters was so fruitfully adapted by the National Theatre to create One Man, Two Guvnors. The Venetian Twins is cut from the same bolt of gaudy cloth (indeed, can it really be a coincidence that lead actor Grant O Rourke is a dead ringer for James Corden?) At any rate, it matters not. This is a farce majeure, beautifully played, timed to precision and rib ticklingly funny from start to finish.

The action takes place in Verona. Rich and somewhat dim country boy, Zanetto (O Rourke) comes in search of a bride, specifically the nice but equally dim Columbina (Angela Darcy) whose gold-digging father, The Provost senses an opportunity to refill the family’s depleted coffers. But Zanetto has an identical twin brother, Tonino (also played by O Rourke) from whom he was separated as a child. When Tonino flees his native Venice for Verona along with his sweetheart, prototype feminist Beatrice (Jessica Hardwick), the scene is set for a bewildering series of ‘mistaken identity’ disasters. It’s a cliche to say that much hilarity ensues but in this case, that’s exactly right.

In the wrong hands, farce can be toe-curling, but there’s not a foot put wrong here (unless you count the hilariously drunken old landlady who falls repeatedly through an open trapdoor.) This owes much to Commedia Dell Arte, but this is no ‘off-the-peg plot. Much of the wittily updated script by Tony Cownie is delivered in broad Scots accents, which work brilliantly, and there’s a wonderfully foppish performance by John Kielty as the effete (and inevitably English-accented) Florindo. There’s some wonderfully fruity innuendo, a fistful of malapropisms from Columbina and a stomach-churning scene involving a blocked toilet that modesty forbids me to describe in detail. Meanwhile, O Rourke slips effortlessly between the two roles simply by doing up the top button on his jacket and adopting a different expression. The two acts galloped by while the audience, myself included, were convulsed with laughter from start to finish. If laughter is something you relish, then you really should see this before it moves on. It’s a Venetian blinder.

5 stars

Philip Caveney