Helen Mackay

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

Walking On Walls

walking-on-walls

19/10/16

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Walking On Walls by Morna Pearson is part of the Traverse’s latest ‘A Play, A Pie and A Pint’ season. There are five plays, each one shown at 1pm from Tuesday to Saturday, with one later performance on a Friday evening. It’s a successful concept and clearly very popular; today’s show is sold out. And really, what’s not to like about a £12.50 theatre ticket that also includes a savoury pie and a pint of ale (wine or soft drinks are also available)?

We’ve extolled the virtues of the Traverse and have invited friends to join us today, so we’re extra keen for this one to be good. And (quite by chance) Philip met one the actors at an event in Glasgow, last night, which adds another level of pressure; he wants to be able to offer genuine praise!

Luckily, we’re not disappointed. Morna Pearson’s script is sharp and liberally laced with dark humour. It tells the tale of Claire, a young woman still traumatised by the bullying she experienced at school. Her solution is to become a masked vigilante; after work each evening, she stalks the city’s streets, looking for people to help and reporting ‘criminals’ to the police.

As the lights go up, she is keeping an eye on her latest project: a man, bound and gagged, sits listening to her, growing more and more agitated. She’s called the police, she says; they’ll be here soon. But we quickly learn more about Fraser and how his past interconnects with Claire’s.

It’s a simple two-hander in a black box studio, with minimal props and a basic set (two desks, two  chairs, a scattering of stationery). But the simplicity absolutely suits the piece.  Both actors (Helen Mackay and Andy Clark) inhabit their characters convincingly. Their relationship – with all its tensions and revelations – is deliciously  uncomfortable, but there are plenty of laughs amid the heartache and despair.

It might be tough to get a ticket for this, but I do urge you to try. It’s a cracking little play – and the pies are pretty good too.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield