Touching the Void (The Lyceum: 25 Jan – 16 Feb. ’19)

l to r. Patrick MacNamee, Josh Williams, Fiona Hampton, & Edward Hayter

A hell of a ride

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars Nae Bad 

 

I’m what you’d call a “small-time climber”. I used to get drunk on Arthur’s Seat a lot, and am occasionally known to change lightbulbs and hang things using a cheeky ladder or two. But despite my solid credentials, I haven’t got the first inkling as to why someone might upgrade from ‘Ladder’ to ‘Pile of rocks .. and death’, and although Touching the Void certainly gave me an insight into those who do, I can’t say I left as a Gore-Tex convert.

Touching the Void, from director Tom Morris and based on the book by Joe Simpson, follows climbers Joe (Josh Williams)  and Simon (Edward Hayter), who face true calamity on their descent of the Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes. The plot is fairly complex from a “Who’s doing what, when?” perspective, but the most basic synopsis without spoilers is:  things don’t go amazingly well. What follows is an excruciating story of sweat and almost supernatural human will – and even if the details tell you how it ends, it’s still a hell of a ride.

What works in this show is incredibly clear from the get-go: it’s a spectacle. The Carroll-esque flock of chairs floating above a neon jukebox, the unnerving dark abyss created only by light and sheets, the climbable, rotating metal strut cliff face. As just something to watch, this show is an utter delight. Actors, obviously trained to the point of safety, almost seem a dynamic part of the scenery as they scrambled, hung and climbed over places I’d never even seen lit on a Lyceum stage before. Forget the plot – the performances told an unspoken story of sweat and suffering before the play even began.

The theme of spectacle returns once again if we concentrate on the acting. Each of the four characters had at least one moment where it was abundantly clear why they had been chosen for the role. Fiona Hampton (as Sarah, Joe’s sister)  even got some tears from my theatre partner that night, using nothing but an empty stage and a letter. My personal MVP goes to Josh Williams, however, if only for the sheer grit it must’ve taken to drag himself around the stage and still emote realistically for a solid forty minutes. All good news for the theatre-going public.

However, as this show quite emphatically demonstrates, for every climb there is a fall. And unfortunately, there were a few trenches that this production did not seem to have the will to climb out of.

I wanted to like this show. I liked the ideas at play, I loved the staging – but I have never seen a show so willing to undercut its own potential excellence for seemingly no reason. The source material is jaw dropping and the actors are clearly talented, and the play is full of moments which if left to stand on their own, within their moment, are powerful. But for some reason it seems like it doesn’t have enough confidence that they will stand, and so things are extended, or repeated or just simply cluttered up and sabotaged by so many different elements that the simplicity and effectiveness of the particular is lost. This happens consistently: one of the most frustrating examples includes a tense and exciting scene of Joe and Simon battling a storm on a cliff face, which was then overlaid with Patrick McNamee’s soothing, folksy twang, quipping merrily around like he’d spent his time offstage pounding hash and Ordnance Maps.

Or, even worse, a legitimately good scene just simply goes on too long. A painful scene of a man dragging his broken body across a rock ridge is harrowing for ten minutes of sobbing and inching, but after twenty with little more than a weird song (we will get to those), it feels a lot more like filler than chiller.

But most frustrating of all were the dances and choral spoken word. In amongst what is clearly a physically capable and dedicated cast with choreographers who can achieve so much in other areas, it baffles me why numbers like an unexpected spoken word rap about Ice Axe technique could not only mismatch tonally but also feel as if they’d barely been choreographed at all. The use of repetition and spoken word material has the potential to be well done, but at best it breaks the play’s natural flow, and at worst is actually a little boring after the third chorus of “Because it’s [F -ing] there”.

More than anything else, this was a disappointing show. All the more so because those glittering moments of excellence weren’t just in my privileged reviewer dreams but are there on stage – for just a second. It feels as if this production could have been much more than it was, and didn’t trust the talent it had and the story it adapted. Looking at other reviews it seems I’m quite lonely here on my Portaledge. Maybe I just don’t get it, but knowing that less is definitely more for Alpine Climbers, I found myself longing for it to be the same of theatre adaptations as well.

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 25 January)

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Wendy and Peter Pan (The Lyceum: 29 Nov.’18 – 5 Jan. ’19)

Isobel McArthur (Wendy) and Dorian Simpson (Smee/Doc Giles)
Photos: Mihaela Bodlovic

“It’s a visual treat”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Outstanding

It is not often that I review children’s shows. Luckily, as a twenty-something I’m basically a child in an adult body, pretending I know how to do taxes or what grenadine is. Less luckily, it’s much harder to review a children’s show honestly than it is to convince people at parties you can make a drink other than “rum in a Tom & Jerry mug”. With that in mind, consider this a review in two parts: one for the adults in the audience, and the other for the kids you’ll most likely have alongside you.

If you’re a parent, or just someone who’s interested in the general state of children’s theatre, the outlook is actually pretty good. Ella Hickson’s interpretation of the J.M Barrie classic plays its adaptational cards fairly straight: despite new framing devices and subplots the bones of the original do shine through. Though whilst that may be nothing new, it’s definitely nothing unwelcome.

The production paves its own way in design terms. It’s a visual treat: the vertically focused sets are detailed and interesting enough alone, but when coupled with costume and staging the whole production goes from “act” to “spectacle” on visual merit alone. Particular praise to Ziggy Heath as Peter Pan, for extended service to physical clownery, exhausting even just to watch. Co-lead Isobel McArthur performs an admirable Wendy, managing to keep up almost effortlessly against her more physically dynamic ensemble.

This is also a show, however, that could be accused of over ambition in its writing. Whilst the quality of the dialogue is high, Hickson’s adaptation suffers from trying to do too much at once. By the second half, the story is about accepting the death of a child, and also about becoming an adult, but also a swashbuckling adventure, but also about Wendy wanting to lead, and on and on as such. Just when it seems to be coming to grips with one theme, it switches. And whilst there is something to be said about writing for the often less-than-infinite attention spans of younger kids, as an adult you might be left feeling a little dazed. Despite a very talented cast and that excellent overall design, the story changes momentum so often that it struggles to carry a single cohesive theme.

But it’s all well and good to sit on my high horse and judge: perhaps more important than what I think is what the kids thought. And despite any criticisms levelled previously, there is one overriding factor that makes the difference here: they were enthralled. For nearly the show’s entire run time, silence pervaded over a crowd of people whose average age barely went above double digits. On the way out, it was a sea of smile and fake sword fights, and it’s honestly very easy to see why.

Gyuri Sarossy as Captain Hook

Sally Reid as Tink

Despite being a little clumsy in its execution story-wise, Peter Pan and Wendy succeeds in capturing something essentially child like. Call it something I can’t put my finger on, or hook onto it (geddit?), but it’s obvious that this production understands the motivations, feelings and fears of young children. At the end of the day, it’s going to do its job for its intended audience, and not only do it well, but with sincerity. The performances are big and expressive, but thoughtful too. Funny, even – Dorian Simpson as Smee delivered laughs that had every age bracket rolling, alongside Sally Reid’s wonderfully crunchy portrayal of Tinkerbell.

PeterPan3

… and with Ziggy Heath as Peter

Is it worth going to see if you don’t have kids? Maybe, if you want something interesting to look at for a couple of hours, but aren’t expecting grand narrative. But if you’re looking for something that the younger people in your life might be able to connect with in a really meaningful, fun way? Absolutely.

 

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 30 December)

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Cyrano de Bergerac (The Lyceum: 12 Oct. – 3 Nov.’18)

Image result for Cyrano de Bergerac Scotland 2018

Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

“A production that oozes professionalism”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Outstanding

Good theatre, I think, is both a puzzle and a pleasure. A treat for the eyes, ears and heart – but also something layered, where the picking apart of each thread in a production leads only to more curiosity and wonder. To that end, Dominic Hill’s production of Cyrano de Bergerac is the theatrical equivalent of a delicious chocolate cake with a Rubik’s cube shoved in it.

The year is 1640, and much like every other time prior to the 21st century, things aren’t going so great: the Spanish are acting up again, social conduct is bloodier than ever, and everyone seems to be talking in rhyming couplets. Enter Cyrano de Bergerac, a witty warrior and poet cursed with a face like a production of “Eyes Wide Shut” starring Pinocchio. Deeply in love with his cousin Roxanne but damned by his features, Cyrano soon finds himself helping another man win her heart with his words. Hi-jinks ensue.

It seems prescient here to point out that the first thing that struck me about this performance was its language. The original verse drama becomes – in Edwin Morgan‘s lyrical translation –  a mix of modern, light and heavy Scots and is wonderfully effective from the outset. I was surprised – as someone who is naturalised Scottish enough not to mispronounce “Cockburn” but who falters on “Kirkcaldy” every time – surprised that I was never confused.

And make no mistake: this review could just as easily been a list of the cast from ensemble to music, with associated favourite lines and individual strengths. Part of the joy of this production (especially from a reviewing standpoint) is that the acting chain suffers no weak link. Keith Fleming’s pompous and yet strangely respectable portrayal of De Guiche and Jessica Hardwick’s firecracker rendition of Roxanne stood out as particular favourites, but that isn’t by much – each ensemble character could have acted alone on an empty stage, and I still would have paid to watch it.

However, I would be remiss not to give extra praise to Brian Ferguson’s portrayal of Cyrano de Bergerac himself. And what a portrayal it is: the sting of heartbreak, the fever of victory and the occasional misery of acting morally – combine alchemy-like in Ferguson’s performance, which stands out as the most singularly believable portrayal of De Bergerac since Depardieu’s on screen. Whether duelling with steel or syllables, Ferguson not only succeeds in creating a character who is larger-than-life, but is also imbued with a vulnerable, raw kind of groundedness.

The sheer energy and verve of Ferguson’s act is amplified even further by a director with a clear talent for the physical. Each group movement and mime is executed so expertly, it’s akin to watching a single organism twitch, undulate and react to its own dramatic movements. My theatre partner for the night, a stage combat instructor and enthusiast, had particular praise for the fights (especially in the first half, where rapiers abound).

However, this is not a flawless production. Any criticisms, though, are minor in comparison to its strengths, and are mostly relegated to the second half, where accents occasionally slipped and lines of dialogue were directed to the back of the stage. It also proved a little difficult to see some of the beautiful physical accompaniments performed in the background of many scenes, owing to actors being swallowed up by the impressive scenery.

A thought may also be given to the length of the show itself: the first act alone stretches to just under two hours. And whilst the production is of high enough quality that its length does not detract too much from the experience, I found myself hoping that it did not receive a deserved standing ovation for fear of my legs giving out for numbness.

These moans do very little to muddy the sheen of care and talent which is buffed into every scene of Cyrano de Bergerac. This is a joint production that oozes the professionalism of Edinburgh’s Lyceum, Glasgow’s Citizens, and the National Theatre of Scotland.  Its ability to mix what many might consider disparate ingredients into glorious, singular, drama cannot be understated. Just admire the dramatic polish!

Give this one a watch while you still can.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 13 October)

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Twelfth Night (Lyceum: 14 September – 6 October ’18)

Dawn Sievewright as Lady Tobi and Guy Hughes as Andrew Aguecheek.
Photos: Mihaela Bodlovi

“Truly festive and entertaining”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Where to begin with this eye-catching season opener? Well, you should accept that music is indeed the food of love and that Frank Zappa is a legend, and then go to 1966 for Freak Out, the debut album of The Mothers of Invention. Side one, track six, is How Could I Be Such a Fool? (Answer: in Malvolio’s case, stupendously) and on side two you’ll find Any Way the Wind Blows, (not so freaky; more early Beatles) which nicely covers Twelfth Night’s alternative title, What You Will, with sax’, flute and clarinet.

The ‘mothers’ of this co-production from Edinburgh’s Lyceum and Bristol’s Old Vic are Wils Wilson and Ana Inés Jaberes-Pita, director and designer respectively, who brought Cockpit to the Lyceum last October. And, Wowie Zowie (.. track 7), do they pull out all the stops this time around! If mellow vibes come colour saturated and swaying with the dance moves of the early 70s, then this Twelfth Night is in the mix.

Suave Duke Orsino may have musicians ‘attending’ but these actor-musicians displace him, helped by a grand piano centre stage and blinding, wonderful costume. Were those magenta or crimson loon pants on an elongated Curio (Meilyr Jones)? Andrew Aguecheek (Guy Hughes) is a winged vision in white, gifted by ABBA, on platform shoes. Lovelorn he may be but his outing on piano to start the second half is awesome. Aly Macrea directs the band with customary, unassuming coolness, while any resemblance to Frank Zappa is accidental. It’s a delight to hear Dylan Read sing and move as Feste, once you’ve stopped admiring the blooming purple peonies on his dress.

TwelfthNight'18.2

l to r. Dylan Read, Meilyr Jones, & Brian James O’Sullivan.

Maria wears her furry mules to mischievous and joyful effect. You can forget quite how vital she is to the pace of the piece, and played well – as here by Joanna Holden – how easy it is to like her at the expense of Viola and Olivia, laden as they are with love and identity. Malvolio, the major-domo of rectitude, of proper clothes and estuary English, has no chance but, boy, does he have a go at embracing the ‘other’ side! Christopher Green has taken on (and created) many parts but this is probably his largest codpiece to date. He is also a fine singer and together with Messrs. Jones, Hughes, Macrae, and Read you do – for once – get a truly festive and entertaining Twelfth Night.

But what of love, with or without drink and desire? Frankly, they’re all subdued by fun and playacting, which the text proves it can support. Olivia (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) suffers the pangs the most, possibly because she has grey trousers. Sir Toby becomes Lady Tobi (Dawn Sievewright) who belches less but has all the gusto of the portly knight and even has room for a moment of pregnant melancholy. Viola (Jade Ogugua) and Sebastian (Joanne Thomson) are the identical twins that you’re happy to take on trust and see reunited whilst Orsino (Colette Dalal Tchantcho) has the hauteur not to care in the slightest that he has married the ‘wrong’ twin. Only Antonio (Brian James O’Sullivan) is really disappointed in love and he wins a sympathetic “Ah’s” from the audience as he exits, hurt.

When you can accept that a lava lamp and a squeeze box is a police car you know that you’re in expert hands. This is quite a rare Twelfth Night, suffused with theatre, and I enjoyed it.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 19 October)

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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

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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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.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 21 February)

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