I’ve always wondered what the health and safety brigade make of the Southwark Playhouse. Chinese opium dens were probably better lit than the theatre bar where you have to wait and queue before the show. Getting from one end of the poorly lit bar to another is quite a feat if you don’t want to trip over chairs and tables and uneven steps. Additionally, the airless and musty bar space is not a pleasant place to queue for 20 mins before showtime. Tempers were fraying around us as we waited patiently last Saturday night.
But my irritation quickly evaporated as we settled in to enjoy this lively and effervescent production. Written by Hannah Cowley in 1780, the play hasn’t been performed since 1888. Much credit, therefore, to Red Handed Theatre Company for reviving this comic play which, despite its period setting, has ageless themes a contemporary audience will be able to relate to. One such theme is the media’s love for scandal and the depths to which it will go to report these scandals.
Taking place in Georgian London, the story revolves around two women. Letitia (played by Gina Beck), a spirited young woman about to get married, places a value upon herself at a time when many women actively failed to do so. The other, Lady Frances (played wonderfully by former S Club 7 member, Hannah Spearritt), is a downtrodden woman married to a suffocatingly dominant husband but who, with the help of other women in society, finds her spiritedness. An assortment of male characters – hapless father, idealistic fiance, jealous husband, society gossips, schemers, do-gooders and snooty French servants – add colour and texture to this energetic and fast paced production.
Like most Georgian plays, The Belle’s Stratagem has what appears to be a complicated plot but director Jessica Swale presents this play in an easy and fluid manner. The minimal set allows the large cast to be nimble in an intimate space. While staying very much a period piece, Swale refreshes this play with contemporary songs from the Spice Girls and Lilly Allen, amongst others. The outstanding cast keeps the audience engaged with improvised remarks aimed at members of the audience as if we are part of the wider Georgian London society feigning mild shock at the antics of these characters while secretly enjoying them.
The Belle’s Stratagem is on at the Southwark Playhouse until 1 October. Running time is two and a half hours with a 15 minute interval. Tickets are £20 at the box office.