Pauline Knowles

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

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Jumpy

29/10/16

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Jumpy is a cracker of a show, at once funny and appalling, familiar and uncomfortable. It’s an episodic tale, a series of vignettes that combine to give a frank and detailed examination of a middle-class family life.

Primarily, this is the tale of Hilary and Tilly, a  mother and daughter struggling with their relationship. Hilary (Pauline Knowles) has just turned fifty, her marriage is stale and she’s about to lose her job. She’s in the habit of pouring a glass of wine as soon as she sets foot inside her home, and she’s frustrated by the way her daughter dismisses her. Tilly (Molly Vevers) is a truculent young woman, happy when she’s with her friends and angry with Hilary. Her anger isn’t specific – Hilary has done nothing wrong – it’s more of a howl against the world, where a fifteen-year-old can’t quite be free. She’s tugging at the apron strings, but of course still needs her mum.

Make no mistake, at its core this is a comedy, and the teenage angst is played for laughs. The way Vevers tuts and scowls and contorts her body stays just the right side of parody: this is adolescence writ large – played for humour but with enough realism to keep us all on side. And while Knowles’ portrayal of Hilary is touchingly vulnerable – she really seems to ache with the difficulty of it all – it’s still funny, in a wry, sardonic way.

There’s a great supporting cast too, most notably Gail Watson as Frances, whose burlesque routine is as impressive as it is hilarious, and Richard Conlon as Roland, the spineless cad who can’t see beyond his own shallow needs. And Stephen McCole’s Mark makes an interesting counterpoint, straight man to the comedians, the solid centre at the heart of Hilary’s life.

It’s brutal in places; it’ll make you question and evaluate the relationships you have with other people, the world, with politics (and wine). But that’s all to the good. April De Angelis’s play is definitely one to see. So get yourself a ticket, and catch it while you can.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

20/12/15

The Lyceum, Edinburgh

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a well-loved and familiar tale with a guest spot for Santa Claus; no wonder it’s become a staple family Christmas show. And the Lyceum’s production starts off wonderfully; the design (by Becky Minto) is breathtaking: the all-important transition from Britain to Narnia eliciting an audible response from the audience.

The parallels between the two worlds (and Narnia’s appeal) are highlighted by the double casting: both places are being torn apart by war but, while in the real world the children are bystanders, exiled from their home with no option but to wait things out, in Narnia they play an active role; they are no longer helpless children, sidelined and ignored.

It’s a shame, then, that some elements of the play seem almost perfunctory. Peter’s battle with Maugrim, for example, lacks any real sense of menace. Some scenes, most notably Aslan’s murder – but there are others too – are crying out for a chorus: ‘Come, every spirit, every wraith,’ chants the White Witch, played with wonderful malevolence by Pauline Knowles. But no one comes, or hardly anyone: three makes for a very sparse crowd. In Manchester, student choruses seem quite the thing; we’ve seen actors-in-training from local universities employed in several professional productions there and this might have been an idea here. The Lyceum’s Narnia would be more convincing if it were more densely populated.

The children’s delivery is a bit stage-school and declamatory for my taste; they’re not actually kids, of course, but young adults, which might account for the vocal tics as they try to make themselves sound more youthful. And I wish that Aslan were more than just a man in a fur suit.

That said, it’s still a magical show in places, with spark and vim enough to keep a young audience entranced. The final battle scene is beautifully done, all lights and ribbons and roaring sound effects. At its best, this play is very good indeed. It’s just a bit uneven, I suppose.

3 stars

Susan Singfield