It’s a sad fact that many rarely-performed plays are little seen for a good reason, so I admit to a slight feeling of trepidation on hearing that Hannah Cowley’s play of 1780, The Belle’s Stratagem, was last performed in the 1880s. But anyone seeing Jessica Swale’s delightful production is likely to be both shocked at this neglect and grateful that Swale has seen fit to revive such a gem.
Admittedly, the paper thin plot is nothing particularly original – a woman distressed by her fiancé’s indifference schemes to win his affections through deceit, while a jealous booby of a husband seeks to keep his naive wife safe of the temptations of the town. But this matters little – the whole thing is delivered with such charm that you simply can’t help falling under its spell.
Out of a universally solid cast, it’s hard to pick a stand-out. As the titular belle, Gina Beck’s Letitia is pleasantly spunky, a woman determined to make her own fate, while Michael Lindall makes a suitably eligible swain. Marc Bayliss’ Courtall is deliciously caddish, while frustrated romantic Saville is given a pleasingly vulnerable edge by Jeremy Joyce. Milking their roles for every last laugh, Jackie Clune and Maggie Steed are the incorrigible older women, refusing to conform to society’s expectations, and Joseph Macnab mugs impressively as a jealous husband to Hannah Spearritt’s charming naïf, who turns out to have much more of a backbone than anyone could guess. Christopher Logan manages to play Flutter as an entertainingly camp gossip without veering too far into ‘comedy gay’ territory, and despite being saddled with an unfunny verbal tic, Robin Soans gets his fair share of laughs as Letitia’s father.
In an earlier interview with Exeunt, Swale has commented on how “staggeringly forward thinking” Cowley was as a playwright, and how much the play resonates with modern women: and certainly there is much to like in these outspoken and opinionated females who refuse to be cowed. This modernity is highlighted by Swale’s clever use of popular music, the insertion of the odd Spice Girls or Lily Allen song seeming like playful touches in an otherwise faithful period drama rather than jarring anachronisms. Simon Kenny’s unfussy design and beautiful costumes are to be commended, and the performers use the intimacy of the Southwark Playhouse main space well, teasingly interacting with an audience that is only a few feet away.
So in reviving The Belle’s Stratagem, Swale has not only done justice to an unfairly forgotten work, but delivered a joyful piece of theatre that really shouldn’t be missed. (And, word to the wise, if you do go – buy a programme. A rare degree of care has gone into its creation and it’s almost as much fun as the play).