A little bit of history is required to fully appreciate The Belle's Stratagem.
The play premiered in 1780 and was well received by London society; despite questioning (and mocking) its norms and conventions. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, the play was written by a woman, Hannah Cowley. However, the popularity of The Belle's Stratagem soon waned and the play was last aired in 1888.
In this age of continued nostalgia for the past and love of costumer dramas, it seems incredible that this play has remained as hidden as the ankles of an eighteenth century gentlewoman. The plot is complicated and the characters naturally become entwined in each other's affairs. Two couples lie at the heart of the story. The first consists of a pompous young man who, having just returned from the Grand Tour, is disappointed to find his betrothed displaying the 'timidity of English character'. The other couple is recently married, and the husband wishes to do all he can to shield his country-born-and-breed wife from the excesses of London high society. Naturally, the female protagonists display spirit and Becky Sharpe-type ingenuity and teach their other halves to treat them as equals in body and mind.
The play contains all you could want from an eighteenth century costume drama. There are of course the set pieces – the masquerade ball at which the age-old tricks of mistaken identities and cross-dressing are deployed. The production, by the Red Handed Theatre Company, is excellent. The cast is large – sixteen in total – but manage to fit on what is ultimately quite a small stage. Almost all of the ensemble cast deserve recognition but particular credit should go to Maggie Steed (Mrs Racket) and Jackie Clune (Miss Ogle) who provided a disproportionate amount of the laughs as the more mature female cast members.
The play started fashionably late and the first act was too long; the audience rushed to the bar in relief as the lights came up. The production also couldn't resist the temptation to introduce modern touches. At various stages, the cast members burst into contemporary song (including, memorably, the Spice Girl's 'Wannabe'). Whilst well executed and humorous, these were ultimately unnecessary flourishes.
The Southwark Playhouse may struggle to deliver the grandeur that this play requires. However, the intimate theatre did create a sense of wonder that we were watching a play that had lain untouched for over a hundred years. This crowd pleaser deserves to be seen and the Southwark Playhouse has given it the long run that it deserves. Hopefully this revival will lend The Belle's Stratagem a new lease of life.