The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other (Lyceum: 31 May-2 June ’18)

“A joy to watch”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Peter Brook famously said he could take an empty space and call it a bare stage, continuing: “A man walks across this empty space, whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” In a masterclass of simplicity that Brook would be delighted with, The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other is arguably very little more than several people walking across an empty space for the best part of 90 minutes, and the end result is nothing if not engaging throughout.

Inspired by an afternoon spent watching people come and go in a town square, playwright Peter Handke’s script transforms the actions of these normal people into a theatrical event, which is given new life here by directors Wils Wilson and Janice Parker, along with their community cast of over 90 (ninety!) Edinburgh residents.

The decision to use a large community cast works really well in bringing a sense of honesty and integrity to the action. These are people of all ages, backgrounds, shapes and sizes, with individual quirks that are celebrated on stage, but never embellished to make them ridiculous. Sure, there are some larger than life characters and a sprinkle of pizzazz to create some special moments, but the overall sense of realness conveyed by this piece makes it a joy to watch. Perhaps what’s most impressive though is how slick and deft everything is – one can only marvel at the intricacy that must go in to stage managing this huge cast and all their precise entrances and pathways on stage – it’s hard to spot a misstep anywhere.

Performed completely without words, this is a show that does ask quite a lot of an audience to keep with it, and Michael John McCarthy’s sound design and compositions are (excuse the pun) instrumental in creating a sense of wonderment throughout. His whimsical score facilitates a pleasing ebb and flow to the performance, as if you’re never sure if the music is leading the action or merely complementing it. There’s plenty of variety in the soundscape to punctuate different moods, yet enough consistency to keep it connected and grounded in some magical faraway place. Indeed, this is a production where all creative elements – from costume, design, sound, and direction (even the curtain!) – pull together towards a common goal, which manifests in a very high quality output.

In saying that, at almost an hour and a half in duration, this performance does verge on being too long and self-indulgent. In particular, the section where all performers cluster on stage feels like it should be the climax, but ends up being a surprisingly sloppy (in comparison to the rest of the show) and inconsequential few minutes, which peters out rather unceremoniously into more walking.

As a production that could easily be a rather bizarre lovechild of Samuel Becket and DV8, The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other won’t appeal to everyone. But for me, there’s just such a vibrancy to this piece that leaves you 100% rooting for everyone involved. I’d happily go again.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 1 June)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Forbidden Stories (Traverse: 17/18 May ’18)

“You can almost smell the emotion”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Cyprus. A country torn apart by colonisation, occupation and civil war throughout the 20th Century – the repercussions of which are still deeply felt by its people today. The aptly titled Forbidden Stories is part documentary, part theatre piece bringing new life into the previously untold stories of many of those affected by the political situation on the island over the last 50 or so years.

The stories presented are an equally heart-wrenching and heart-warming collection, with comical, childish moments positioned alongside angry, confused and overjoyed perspectives from all sides of the conflict, dating from the 1960s until the early 2000s. And as a collection it feels like a fair representation of the truth, without ever swaying towards bias for any group or individual.

Much of the staging is basic, reflecting the sense of people at a loss with minimal possessions, and while the presentation in this performance sometimes verges on feeling a bit too low-budget and ill-conceived, the power from this piece comes from the delivery of the stories by the ensemble. Given the strength of the multi-talented and multinational cast, the sense of individual voices comes powering through – you can almost smell the emotion of families being forced to leave their homes or being reunited with their communities, thanks to the subtlety of the acting and deep personal connection with the text. At times it’s almost impossible to consider that they are indeed actors sharing someone else’s words rather than their own experiences.

Yet what a strictly Verbatim-style piece brings an emotional honesty, it can lack in cohesion and narrative, so while there is much insight to be gained from each story, the piece as a whole feels very fragmented, and some of the stories a little hard to follow. What’s disappointing from a theatrical angle is not being able to see individual stories and characters evolve over the duration of the piece to create more narrative drive – I really wanted several of the characters presented to come back and share more of their journey to bring a greater sense of resolution – though the chronological structure of the piece does go some way to completing this loop.

As an educational documentary production, Forbidden Stories is a unique and personal way to learn about the history of Cyprus from the people who lived through it, and it really hits the mark in that respect. As a theatrical performance in its own right, it feels somewhat unfinished and rough around the edges, but still very much worth watching.

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 17 May)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Gut (Traverse: 20 April – 12 May ’18)

Kirsty Stuart and Peter Collins.
Photos. Mihaela Bodlovic.

‘Feel it!’

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 

Turning over a toy box can be messy but upending the presumption of innocence is in an altogether different ballpark. What happens when a nice kind man in the queue at a place to eat helps grandma out and takes your three old to the toilet? You’re allowed a gut feeling about this one and it’s probably the right one? But are you sure, really, really sure?

OK, it’s not The Place to Eat up in John Lewis’ – writer Frances Poet can only go so far – but it might just as well be. As it is, Fisher-Price’s Laugh and Learn puppy takes the biscuit for product placement. Dad, Rory, another nice bloke, hasn’t found puppy’s On-Off switch and its happy-happy tune is doing his head in. It is not so funny for Mum, Maddy; not funny at all, for where there’s an edge in this ninety minute drama she is well and truly over it. And there’s no soft play area on the other side. Is it The Stranger who pushed her or did she do it all by herself?

It could not happen to a more ordinary, youngish, couple, which is precisely the point. We even have a Glasgow address: 65 Kelvindale Road – and Joshua (3) goes to Nursery and Granny Morven (Rory’s mother) helps out a lot, to begin with. First it’s the baby monitor and then it all goes wrong, which is where is the creative team get it just right. There’s a broad set, minimally dressed: a table and three chairs stage left, and a garden swing stage right; large rectangular panels, one of gauze, at the back. Colours are muted, contemporary greys and creams. The exceptional lighting design by Kai Fischer marks off areas that quickly isolate and focus attention. Various Strangers cast shadows, open to frightening doubt, that contrast with the chilling white of Maddy’s psychiatric stay. Michael John McCarthy’s music is spare and quietly ominous while Zinnie Harris’ direction is one keen judgement call after another. The overall effect is a silent ‘House’ in the grip of a familiar, media churned nightmare that cannot be shaken off.

George Anton and Kirsty Stuart.

The script is conversational, inviting immediate and natural responses that seem at odds with the enveloping paranoia. Kirsty Stuart as Maddy is never more convincing as a loving mother than when she details her appalling behaviour. Rory (Peter Collins), who loves her to bits, can sort out toy trucks forever and still not get close to her. His mother, Morven (so believable by Lorraine McIntosh) can only be bewildered and hurt. George Anton is seven different Strangers, sympathetic in one light, scary in another. Presence is all and Anton delivers each time. The impassive concern of his police officer is especially alarming.

The initial setup is a little shaky, rather plastic. Can Maddy be that brittle? But if that’s a weakness the stage work carries it all the way. Gut succeeds in demonstrating that once parenting turns into child protection then it is a nervy, mind shredding issue. Feel it! Stand behind a swing and you risk getting your teeth knocked out but you can get thrown off a see-saw and bang your head just as easily. That, for me, is the audience’s experience. Up and down, up and down, see the Stranger, and then it’s touch-and-go (so to speak) whether it’s playtime or, ‘Wallop!’ “Mum’s out of it”.

 

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 24 April)

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Rhinoceros (Lyceum Theatre: 23 March-7 April ’18)

Cast of Rhinoceros. Photography by Mihaela Bodlovic.

“A phenomenal combination of cast, crew, sound, visuals, and timeliness.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

There often comes a point in allegorical pieces of theatre where an audience may understandably begin to tune out – the moment where they ‘get it’. Perhaps the thinly veiled stand-ins for real-world issues and figures wears tiresome, or the existential point of the play itself has simply been repeated ad nauseam. To the immense credit of director Murat Daltaban, adaptor Zinnie Harris, sound designer Oğuz Kaplangi, and the entire cast of The Lyceum’s staging of Eugene Ionesco’s absurd masterpiece Rhinoceros, during this production, that moment never comes.

Instead, this 96-minute masterpiece enraptures the audience at breakneck pace from start to finish, as it follows a quiet provincial town through a terribly sudden series of disastrous encounters with immense rhinoceroses who seem to come out of nowhere. As the townspeople begin to realise that their own citizens are transforming into the rhinoceroses around them, the remaining human beings react with a mixture of confusion, anguish, and disbelief, which all-too-quickly melts into skepticism, complacency, and inaction. Just motley, disheveled protagonist Berenger (an electric Robert Jack) seems to react with sheer panic and disgust for the beasts, and angles to figure out what to do, only to be talked over and ignored by everyone else.

On the subject matter, one can understand why Zinnie Harris’ adaptation of Ionesco’s hot-blooded anti-fascist play won over audiences at the Edinburgh International Festival this past year with its infuriating banality. The choice to follow Orson Welles’ example (when he directed the first English production of Rhinoceros at the Royal Court in 1960) and relocate the action from France, the original setting, to pseudo-modern Britain — possibly even Scotland…possibly even Edinburgh — is a commendable one, as the calamitous loss of reason and morality among society feels all too believable when delivered with accents as local as these. Even since its 2017 festival debut, the play has gained even more harrowing relevance, considering the looming deadline for Britain’s inflammatory exit from the European Union and the unimaginable complacency on display inside the Republican-led US government to its own all-American brand of authoritarianism. Harry Ward’s pitch-perfect and side-splitting rendition of The Logician’s “re-contextualizing” of the most pedantic and existential elements of the rhinoceros question, (instead of just focusing on what to do about it), is all too familiar, and a clever jab that lands brilliantly.

The play is full of commendably measured performances, including standout bone-headedness from Sally Reid as Botard and Myra McFadyen as a suspiciously familiar-looking Monsieur Papillon. Esin Harvey, John Cobb, and Natalie Arle-Toyne also turn in hilarious and eye-catching portrayals of variously deluded and theatrical supporting characters. But the real scene-stealer is Steven McNicoll as Jean, the rotund and incorrigible gentleman who bats Berenger around verbally and physically as he opines on the world, almost always in a completely unproductive direction. McNicoll plays Jean with such revolting yet somehow delightful arrogance and verbosity that in the genuinely terrifying sequence where Jean falls victim to the mysterious affliction, it is sad to see him go.

Complete loss of humanity, and the structures and pillars upon which ‘decent society’ are meant to rest, are ingeniously realised onstage. The set itself develops alongside the narrative by steadily adding platforms to raise the action higher and higher above the open settings the first scene. With truly nightmarish effect, the playing area for the performers becomes smaller and smaller, and physically farther away from where they began: a ‘rising tide’ of fascism. In addition to the set, the impressive stagecraft features delightfully insane costume design by Tom Piper, effective and visually arresting lighting design by Chris Davey (particularly memorable when Jean’s silhouette is portrayed in full during his horrifying transformation into the eponymous beast), and a pitch-perfect soundscape, composed and mostly performed onstage by Oğuz Kaplangi.

The ingenuity of Kaplangi’s sonic contribution is first introduced as the first rhinoceros stomps by, signified by a cacophonous racket that echoes behind and around the audience, leaving the viewer to fill in the visuals with their mind’s eye to match the might and ferocity that the onstage townspeople are witnessing. The fabulous use of sound and music only improves throughout the play, and it is striking how often the unsettling and masterfully composed soundtrack re-enters so subtly that the viewer might not notice its recurrence until it reaches an intense crescendo. Kaplangi also turns in perhaps the most unexpectedly memorable performance as a local cat, who saunters across the stage at the very opening and introduces the tone of the production perfectly.

This production deserves to be seen by a wide and receptive audience, even though it falls victim to some less inspired elements. Harris, has for some reason, inserts repeated opportunities for the onstage performers to interact with the audience and generally poke and prod at the fourth wall. There are references to how hard it is to memorise some of the long words in the script, a direct description of how great the Royal Lyceum Theatre is, and quite a few winks to the audience about how insane the play has gotten. The production is so well-executed in nearly every other regard that the self-deprecation comes off as cheap and unnecessary. There is also a particularly aggravating sequence where Berenger and Dudard, at the peak of the storyline’s mayhem, conduct an entire conversation without looking each other in the eyes; and though this is quickly reframed as a deliberately surreal choice, it is perhaps too distanced from the narrative urgency of the scene.

One last note: perhaps this production’s most intriguing effect is the startling realisation that Ionesco’s cautionary tale of a society allowing itself to be consumed by monstrous, unacceptable forces, fits well into rejections of widespread societal change as a whole, both left and right wing. To be clear, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros is unmistakably anti-fascism and anti-fanaticism, and Daltaban pulls no punches about who to reference and ridicule. Yet Berenger’s climactic monologue, alone atop a mountain of crumbled society, announcing that he is the “last white man left,” and remarking on the foreign skin colour of the ubiquitous animals, leaves an oddly white supremacist taste in the mouth. Perhaps Harris and Daltaban, and even Ionesco himself, are intentionally reframing the ‘lone hero’ of Berenger as unreasonably disdainful of the new form of his fellow citizens, or perhaps society today regards Berenger’s self-assumed superiority more skeptically than Ionesco’s 1960 production would have, making what was once a statement of European decency sound more like a nationalist wail. Whether or not you agree, this heavy question serves as yet another reason to head over to The Lyceum for a night of hilarious yet harrowing théâtre de l’absurde. 

With such a phenomenal combination of cast, crew, sound, visuals, and timeliness, Murat Daltaban’s production of Rhinoceros is not one to miss.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 24 March)

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Romeo and Juliet (Pleasance: 6 -10 March ’18)

Eliza Lawrence as Juliet and Douglas Clark as Romeo.
Photo: EUSC.

“A very appealing production “

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Outstanding

 

Can Romeo and Juliet be refreshing? Deffo.

For a start, as with Heineken, there’s the beer. Verona’s birra is Mastro Matto’s; in 1594 quite possibly a thriving business for either the house of Montague or of Capulet. Beer is liberally served in this production. The Prologue opens Act 2 truly blattered, heels in hand. The invitation to the Capulet party is ‘Pray come and crush a cup of wine’ [… or bottle of lager].

Downstage right and centre there’s a café. Mercutio and Benvolio are often in there, sitting down with a beer and talking lewd. You can forget how this high romantic tragedy starts way down low and mucky with the bawdy Sampson thrusting women –  ‘being the weaker vessels’ –  to the wall. However, no chance of that in this production: the Prince and the Friar are women, the Nurse is on man-topping form and Juliet is a very self-possessed #MeToo 16 year old.

Romeo sits ‘off’, to the side of the platform stage, appalled yet entertained, as Mercutio summons Rosaline’s ‘scarlet lip’ and ‘quivering thigh’. He’s then up on the platform, facing forward, for the balcony scene with Juliet behind him at the front of the main stage. It’s a terrific, captivating effect, each speaking to the other but straight at the audience as well. A window on wheels turns around to frame, alternatively, either the inside or the outside of Juliet’s room. This works well as an occasional framing device and is typical of Director Finlay McAfee’s ‘eye’ on his audience and how it will see and interpret the action.

What with body bags on a stark blue- grey set, Love looks ‘death-mark’d’ from the start, but this is not, I felt, a certainty. There is more immediacy and irresolution in the course of this production than in many, which is always appealing in a play whose awful end is common knowledge. The fighting –  tricky when Health & Safety shrinks rapier to titchy (plastic?) dagger – relies on fist, boot, and head bashing which looked sufficiently dangerous to make you realise how fatal accidents are so often juvenile and hot-headed. Mind you, Romeo’s dispatch of Tybalt is definitely murder.

Michael Black as Benvolio with Douglas Clark, Romeo.
Photo: EUSC.

Eliza Lawrence is Juliet and does indeed ‘teach the torches to burn bright’. (Probably not accidental then that Mercutio and Romeo play around with an LED lenser.) This Juliet may be sweet but you can believe that her suicide is the result of an extraordinary love and not momentary despair. Douglas Clark plays  Romeo with the same verve and assurance that he brought to Alan in Equus three years ago. That does make his wrecked helplessness with the Friar at the news of his banishment close to unbelievable but this is still (another) outstanding performance. Kirsten Millar’s programme profile says she is ‘immensely excited’ to add another old lady to her ‘eclectic portfolio’ and you can only admire her cracking truthfulness! Esmée Cook is a Friar whose diction over the whole piece is admirably steady, which helps in a play that can pitch and yaw from one scene to the next. Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller’s Capulet has attractive style – his jacket and shoes combo do half the talking – until he slaps his Juliet right across the face. Bam! And Will Peppercorn as Mercutio poses the usual problem: once he’s dead what’s to do without all that wit and energy? The draining effect of rainfall upon Romeo’s sleeping-bag in Mantua is actually genius!

As well as the yoof n’beer, it was Romeo sitting on the bed tying up his trainers after his few hours with Juliet that confirmed it. This is a very appealing production of Romeo and Juliet. Its effects may appear natural but are the result of new thinking and creative rehearsal. The musical score by Madison Willing – electro brooding Michael Nyman strings with grim rumbles – does ‘Tragedy’ proud, whilst the casual modern dress even gives it something of West Side Story. The Capulet ball, simply yet ingeniously staged, could have been in the Pear Tree. Does it serve Mastro Matto’s L’Ultima?

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 7 March)

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Our Country’s Good (Bedlam: 26 February – 3 March)

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“Bold and disciplined”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars:  Outstanding

Lashings of intelligence here. That and the knowledge that ‘the shoulder blades are exposed at about 100 lashes’. There’s also sand on the stage floor, figuratively blood stained, but handy for gritty effect and for when you want to represent a play as ‘a diagram in the sand’, as proof of what could be and what might be changed for the better whatever the wretched circumstances.

And Lord knows that Australia has been there and done that. In literary terms it’s a swift line of descent: Robert Hughes’ ‘The Fatal Shore’ was published in 1986, Thomas Keneally’s ‘The Playmaker’ in 1987, and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good opened at the Royal Court, London, in September 1988. Historically it took eight months for the convict transports to get from Portsmouth to Botany Bay, arriving in January 1788. The action in Wertenbaker’s play – by now surely reckoned to be a modern ‘classic’ – is spread over five to six months. It is Edinburgh University’s official English Literature play of the year and this student production does it proud.

Of course, ‘Advance Australia Fair’ it ain’t. Major Robbie Ross (Amelia Watson) sees to that. He bitterly resents being in such an alien and depraved place, orders floggings for impertinence, and fears that any sign of weakness – ie. kindness – will result in revolt. Arguably it’s the toughest role because he is so singularly awful and Watson has the scowl and the whiplash voice to do it. He is opposed by Governor Arthur Phillip (Matthew Sedman) whose far-seeing humanity guides the play beyond the horror of its opening to its near jubilant close. Wertenbaker indicated that her play end with the ‘triumphant music of Beethoven’s 5th’ but perhaps that was felt to be too much for Bedlam on a freezing evening in February.

What Phillip does do is to require the production of George Farquhar’s Recruiting Officer (1706), directed by theatre loving 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Jacob Baird). The fact that Clark only has two copies of the play and that some of his cast cannot read and that Ross regards him as a sorry excuse for a Marine makes it a tall order to carry out. Baird is well cast as officer class decent but his character is frustrated almost to breaking point, emotionally and sexually. The relief provided by The Recruiting Officer is palpable and is far better for him than pining at his fly buttons for his beloved Betsey Alicia back home.

So, here’s the pre-text of late Restoration comedy within a docudrama, with its 22 strong cast list of gentlemen heroes (2), wise man (1) and villain (1), and the rest (several) as good-for-nothing, not! Robert Sideway (brilliant by Domi Ucar), pick-pocket to the gentry, and glorious ac-tor is a scuttling hoot, establishing her melancholy and rehearsing her bow. He is being flogged on deck when the play begins so it is a defining moment when during the second rehearsal scene he completely upstages a brutal Ross. No such joy for Midshipman Harry Brewer (Gordon Stackhouse) tormented by guilt and by his jealous love for his ‘Duckling’ girl (Anna Swinton). Their time together is raw and explicit and (for young actors) pretty impressive. Tiffany Garnham convinces that her Liz Morden, violent, in chains and born to be hanged, can still be redeemed. Jack McConnell is John Arnscott, transported for life, and so pleased that he can ‘be’ someone else. Erica Belton, speaks wonderfully as Ketch, apprentice hangman, who wants to be an actor because he remembers some players coming to his village in Ireland where they were loved ‘like the angels’. Anna Phillips’ shy Mary Brenham owns a precious and appealing dignity from the start. Anubhav Chowdhury’s Caesar is from Madagascar and you have to wonder at the bad luck that got him into a British penal colony but his French accent and daft woes do provide easy laughs. Hannah Robinson manages to be both upper class twit Campbell and illiterate Dabby, bless her, who never gives up on getting back to the soft rain of Devon.

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Matthew Sedman as Wisehammer and Anna Phillips as Mary, behind. Photo: Louis Caro.

Two characters remain: Wisehammer (Matthew Sedman again) and the Narrator, the Aboriginal Australian. Both command attention but Sedman is outstanding. In this production the Narrator (Sophie Boyle) plays a signature phrase on the violin and her few linked lines are a reminder of the tragic consequences for her people that followed this European ‘entertainment’. Wisehammer, as you can guess, is something else: almost a gentle philosopher, certainly a writer, and Sedman’s careful Northern delivery nail the words, especially his simple Prologue that gives the play its title and it is intoned twice for effect. The fact that Ralph Clark reckons it would give Major Ross apoplexy is a quality judgement.

Our Country’s Good is serious drama and directors Luke Morley and Jane Prinsley take it seriously. This production is bold and disciplined, barely cut – if at all – and its actors work a demanding script with real attention. Yes, there’s some yelling – you would too if you’re being whipped – and it drowned Wisehammer’s astonishing, ghastly opening description of men and women ‘spewed from their country’. Naval uniform is in short supply and despite its appeal the thrust stage doesn’t work, but the actors being constantly visible, on or ‘off, does; and the onstage set design by Natasha Wood and Bryn Jones of a short mast, sail cloth and crossed spars is all that is needed.

I’m with Governor Phillip’s: ‘We will laugh, we may be moved, we may even think a little’. There’s a conviction worth upholding.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 26 February)

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The Belle’s Stratagem (Lyceum: 15 Feb. to 10 March ’18)

Angela Hardie as Laetitia.
Photo. Mihaela Bodlovic.

“Jaunty, diverting and quick. A noteworthy woman playwright is not short-changed”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars Nae Bad

There was gleeful mention of the ‘shit wagon’ and of the reeking ‘Nor Loch’ but these early New Town characters keep their stockings a blinding white and the hems of their fancy gowns spotless. It’s that kind of play: a slight comedy of appearances. Or should that be ‘sleight’?

The Belle’s Stratagem is a jaunty piece, giddy even. Its leading man is Doricourt (Angus Miller), although he’s led by the nose, and he has ‘l’air enjoué’ of a chap with too many Air Miles and too many hours in Club class. Well, he would have, except this is 1788 when Gold Cards and guineas were more likely gifted by pedigree than work. He’s back in Edinburgh after his ‘Grand Tour’ of assorted lounges, demoiselles and signorinas and finds himself betrothed to Letitia (Angela Hardie), known almost from birth and now two years out of boarding school, and he’s not impressed. She, Letitia, is pissed at this – vulgarity clearly crossed Princes Street – and is determined to have her man love her or lose her. Meanwhile, Sir George Touchwood (32 and of the Jacob Rees-Mogg brigade, benign branch) is back in town with his lovely, guileless, wife, Lady Frances. Beware! Cad about, Courtall by name (geddit?), who will have the lady.

Tony Cownie has adapted Mrs Cowley’s Belle’s Stratagem of 1780 and removed the whole play to Scotland, aka that ‘subjugated bunch of hills north of Berwick’. Deacon Brodie is stealing about; Doricourt and the honourable Saville (John Kielty)  are soft Jacobites; Laetitia’s father is Edinburgh’s Provost and Laetitia (in disguise) wins Doricourt’s heart and the audience’s with an aching ‘Will ye no come back again?’ The best joke of the evening is Courtall’s as he goes off to France for an assignation with the Revolution.

Theatre history is all over this piece, if you look for it. The big brother of Cowley’s original has to be George Farquhar’s Beaux Stratagem from 1707. Farquhar had arrived in London in 1697 from Dublin’s wonderfully evocative Theatre Royal at Smock Alley. Cowley’s play opened at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden. Nicola Roy’s Kitty, a prostitute with a proper sense of what’s decent, would fit well into those dodgy streets. She’s the key to foiling Courtall’s foul intrigue. The two widows, Racket (Pauline Knowles) and Ogle (Roy, again) give lechery a good name by repeatedly calling out the hypocrisies of male behaviour but enjoy eyeing the men themselves.

Helen Mackay as Lady Frances and Grant O’Rourke as Sir Edward.
Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Historians place The Belle’s Stratagem at the endpoint of a period when the Comedy of Manners went bourgeois. Marriage and compatibility within a marriage become a pair and so enter Sir Edward and Lady Frances, who (for me) are more interesting and entertaining than an infatuated Doricourt and the infantile Laetitia of the first half and the minx Laetitia of the second. Grant O’Rourke plays the country squire (ok, laird) as if to the manor born. He’s a kind fellow, whose daft helplessness (check O’Rourke’s real comic quality in the Venetian Twins) rallies to the call of defending his wife. He ends up an endearing character and – a near no-no in the Restoration comedy of times past – a deserving husband. And Lady Frances (admirably done by Helen Mackay) is bold enough to love him true once she has established her own rights, which again is rather refreshing. The New Town will be all the better for their rectitude during their three months residence in town! Laetitia’s father, the Provost, is more typecast as the lookout for a wealthy son-in-law but Steven McNicoll gives the part considerable warmth and humanity, not least in a party dress.

There’s pretty music, dancing, a masquerade, numpty grumpy footmen, and squeaky clean, impressively silent Heriot Row facades but all the same I longed for some ruggedness, more spit and bite. The gossip columnist, Flutter, is played by an impish John Ramage and that gets close, but finally it’s light and undemanding. The ‘modern’ script is frequently diverting and quick, actors help it on enormously, and a noteworthy woman playwright is not short-changed, but the intrigue unwinds too rapidly and I found much of the humour either forced or slack.

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 21 February)

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