Review: The Belle’s Stratagem, Southwark Playhouse *****

Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem first premiered in 1780 and was an immediate hit amongst the London theatre elite; yet, after a heady start, the play soon lost favour with those who were outraged at the libelous, outspoken female characters that dominated, and The Belle’s Stratagem was subsequently withdrawn from the season’s repertoire. Last performed in Britain in 1888, this play offers an entire spectrum of delicious specimens from fashionable 18th century society, replete with flamboyant restoration costume and strong characterisations that are apt to give you the giggles.

The plot of The Belle’s Stratagem is simple; Letitia Hardy – played with fervour by the trilling Gina Beck – is dismayed at the apparent indifference of her fiance to her ‘charms’ – and sets about to deceive him, toy with him, repulse him, and, finally, win him through her cunning endeavours. Meanwhile, a subplot unfolds which sees the virtue of another young married filly, Lady Frances, threatened when the roguish Courtall attempts to undermine her husband and trick her into disloyalty.

The plot thickens; yet it is not the plot that grips the audience during this gem of a play. Rather, the 16-strong cast revel on the stage as they parade both within the era and, at the same time, playfully master the modern touches that the talented Jessica Swale has directed. Acapella renditions of, ‘If you wannabe my lover’ and, ‘Here come the girls’ are musically spot on and hilariously enacted, contrasting perfectly with the agitated fervour of the handsome men that dash about the stage as a result of the wicked wiles of the plotting women.

The entire production feels seamless, with meticulous attention to detail and plentiful audience interaction

Stand out performances, difficult in this perfectly cast piece, include that of Christopher Logan as Flutter, a camp, shrewish gossip that creeps about the stage, and Maggie Steed as the antiquated Mrs Rackett, still reveling in her heyday as a one-time beauty and commanding the stage as the resident ‘wit’. That such a word is adopted as an insult for a woman simply serves as a reminder of the times in which the play is set – what constitutes a ‘fine’ woman becomes the hot topic of debate, yet, refreshingly, whilst men speak of their desires, it is women who enact their desires, perhaps presenting the reason why the play proved, after its initial success, to be unpopular with men of the era.

Much of the music is live, adding a courtly feel to the piece, and the choreography is well mapped-out. The entire production feels seamless, with meticulous attention to detail and plentiful audience interaction, which helped to up the stakes for the central characters by effectively drawing us into their world. Whilst depth of character was sometimes lacking in favour of comic, often grotesque characterisations, this trade-off is welcome given the riotous consequences. A fun, well-conceived production, one can only be glad that Cowley’s 18th century play is gracing London’s stages once more. An unmissable entertainment.

***** (5 stars)
Runs until 1st October
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  1. Excellent play! I think I’ll go and see it again, I enjoyed it so much! Superb acting from Maggie Steed et al. Refreshing to have well rounded, witty female characters for a change! A really inspiring and original production of this play – hats off to the director, Jessica Swale, for bringing this master(mistress?!)piece back to life after it has been neglected for so long! A very enjoyable evening.

  2. This is by far the best play I have seen this year and it wipes the floor with the two plays I have seen at the globe effortlessly.

    The direction and acting was superb and the characters well rounded. A true joy. Such a shame it took more than 100 years until it was revived and I sincerely hope that this wll get an additional run. For those who have an evening free until october first – run and see this!!!

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