The Belle’s Stratagem review – a riot of feminist fun

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Tony Cownie roughs up and relocates Hannah Cowley’s 18th-century play, adding vulgar jokes and rebellious energy

Pauline Knowles and Nicola Roy in The Belle’s Stratagem.






On a mission to emancipate … Pauline Knowles and Nicola Roy in The Belle’s Stratagem.
Photograph: Mihaela Bodlovic

Imagine an inverted version of Cinderella, in which the heroine is not a passive figure of virtue but a young woman calling the shots. The ugly sisters are two wild women, sexually assertive and on her side. In the Prince Charming role is the familiar two-dimensional love object, except he has to be brought into line before he can claim his happy ending.

It sounds like a piece of feminist revisionism for the #MeToo moment. In fact, it’s the central strand of Hannah Cowley’s comedy The Belle’s Stratagem from 1780. The play premiered 238 years ago and was one of the hits of Covent Garden repertoire for the next two decades. That Cowley is no longer a household name is a story in itself. Taking her cue from George Farquhar’s 1707 rural comedy The Beaux’ Stratagem, Cowley paints a picture of a self-regarding urban elite in an elaborate matrimonial dance. But, where Farquhar had the men running rings around the women in a catalogue of deceit and double-deceit, Cowley’s deceptions are all governed by the women.

Letitia Hardy, the belle of the title, realises the dishy Doricourt, her fiance, has no feelings for her. In a counterintuitive scheme, she opts to turn her behaviour from bad to worse – “to turn his indifference into dislike” – before letting their arranged marriage go ahead. One masked ball and much confusion later, Doricourt finally sees the inner beauty he had missed.

Sparkling ensemble … The Belle’s Stratagem.



Sparkling ensemble … The Belle’s Stratagem. Photograph: Mihaela Bodlovic

Director Tony Cownie doesn’t so much adapt Cowley’s play as rough it up. He knows he can rely on the playwright’s comic scenarios and the fluidity of her prose, and correctly reasons that it will only take a scattering of vulgar jokes to release her rebellious energy. “I had a very difficult marriage,” deadpans Nicola Roy as the fast-living Mrs Ogle. “You see, I was a Sagittarian and he was an arse.” Cownie’s main change is to switch the action to the Edinburgh New Town of 1788, where the strictures of Presbyterianism are vying with the enlightenment values of the late David Hume and the spirit of the newly arrived Robert Burns. Like Robert McLellan’s The Flouers O’Edinburgh, this version makes light of the Scots-English tensions in a period of upward mobility. In this context, Letitia’s act of self-determination is part of a social reordering. Played by an excellent Angela Hardie, she is wilful, eccentric and in control, always two steps ahead of Angus Miller’s eager-to-please Doricourt.

Aiding her subversive mission are Roy’s Mrs Ogle and Pauline Knowles’s Mrs Racket, a Hinge and Bracket– style double act, one in virulent pink with a towering poodle wig, the other an unapologetic riot of oranges and reds, a contrast to the cool architectural line drawings of Neil Murray’s Georgian set. Somehow, they keep it funny without becoming figures of fun. Their mission to emancipate Helen Mackay’s meek Ayrshire incomer Lady Frances Touchwood is not pantomime villainy but a vital act of female empowerment.

Although the women are at the revolutionary heart of the play, this sparkling ensemble production has hearty comic performances throughout, ranging from Grant O’Rourke as Touchwood’s overbearing husband, a big baby of a man, to Steven McNicoll’s would-be father of the bride, desperately trying to keep up. It’s tremendously entertaining and, after an evening of dressing up and role play, it’s Letitia’s final message that hits home: “I’m a woman, I can be anything.”

  • The Belle’s Stratagem is at the Royal Lyceum until 10 March. Box office: 0131-248 4848.

The Big Burns Supper – in pictures

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Jen Kirkman: ‘Joan Rivers was my comedy mother’

Massachusetts-born, Los Angeles-based Jen Kirkman, 43, is a comedian, podcaster and bestselling author. On TV, she’s known for being a panellist on Chelsea Lately and narrator of Drunk History, while her podcast I Seem Fun gets 50,000 downloads per month. Her standup special Just Keep Livin’? recently arrived on Netflix and she brings her current tour to the UK in late January.

You’re coming over here to play a week of gigs…
I’m so excited. I’ve got some British heritage, actually. My uncle looked us up and the Kirkmans originated from Bury, outside of Manchester, before coming to America in the 19th century. I haven’t visited Bury yet but I’ve been to Manchester and loved it. They were a great audience. No offence but they seemed a little more loosened-up than in London. These are my people.

Are London audiences tougher?
I get cool crowds. My fanbase tend to be, for want of a better phrase, on the punk-rock side of life: feminists, lesbians, guys who wear nail polish, mums who are really fun and like to drink a lot. But in London, you sometimes think: “Are they enjoying this?” Then after the show, they come up and go: “I loved it, I so related.” I’m like: “OK, you need to tell me that during the show with loud laughter.” But I can’t generalise as much about cities as I can nights of the week.

How so? Are audiences different, depending on the day?
Totally. All over the world, it’s the same. Monday crowds are really responsive because if anyone comes out on a Monday, they must be a diehard fan. The next two nights are “meh” in comparison. By Thursday, people are excited about the weekend and in a good mood. Fridays are the toughest crowd. They’ve worked all week, they’re tired and angry, and now they’re drinking, so it’s a weird energy. Saturday is just rowdy. If you could combine the loyalty of a Monday crowd with the rowdiness of a Saturday one, it would be ideal.

You once named Morrissey as your biggest influence. Are your Manchester connections a factor there?
Oh my God, we’re probably related! It was huge for me when I found the music of the Smiths. Morrissey had that Dorothy Parker deadpan wit, that mischievous sense of morbid doom. He really influenced my humour, not so much as a comedian but as a human being. He’s said some stupid things recently but I’ll always love his music.

You’ve just written a pilot for the ABC network called The Mighty Quinn. What’s it about?
A woman who gets dumped by her long-term boyfriend at a Christmas Eve party. She rushes into a crazy rebound affair, then realises she’s not getting any younger and needs to do things differently, so she sets herself a challenge to not date or do anything romantically for a whole year. People spend so much time trying to fix relationships that aren’t working or pursuing new ones.

Is it based on your own real-life festive break-up?
Sure is. It happened at Christmas 2016 and threw my whole world into a spin. There was nothing amusing about it at the time, and I never thought I’d use it in my work. But last summer, I realised it could be a funny thing to happen to a character. Neither me nor Quinn are in our 20s. We’re at a stage where you’re settled and hoping to sail into old age together. But what happens when you’re 40 and suddenly have to start your life over? I did the one-year thing too and I’m loving it.

How has your relationship-free year been?
It whipped by really fast. It was good to feel all the sadness and waves of grief without rebounding or trying to fall in love again. Now I’m open to whatever happens next. But I know what you’re thinking – you haven’t had sex in a year?

The thought never crossed my mind…
Well, nope, I haven’t. It’s been surprisingly easy to not think about that stuff. It could be because the world seems like it’s ending and we’ve all been preoccupied. Impending armageddon tends to take the edge off the old sex drive.

What will it take to get rid of Trump?
A nuclear war. Seriously. One-third of Americans are completely brainwashed, like they’re in a cult. I’m related to some of them and it’s difficult. They don’t care that he’s dangerous and probably has dementia and that we’re terrifying the world. I think he’ll have to resign eventually. What will ultimately put Trump away are his long-standing links to the Russian mob. Something financial will come to light and he’ll implode. But even if he leaves office tomorrow, he’s done years of damage.

Maybe now Prince Harry is marrying an American, he can run for office…
Yeah! There seem to be no rules any more so if a reality TV star can become president, why not a prince? He can depose Trump and be our saviour. I like that Harry guy. He seems cool as hell. Tell him to come down to my London shows and we can hatch a plan.

Will the #metoo movement be a turning point for the entertainment industry?
Hmm, maybe, but I’m sceptical. I was wrapped up in the Louis CK scandal because I’d mentioned the rumours years ago on my podcast. All of a sudden, stupid websites were running fake headlines like “Jen Kirkman says Louis CK assaulted her” when it was so much more nuanced than that. Twelve years ago, he said something creepy to me which definitely tallies with things he’s since admitted to. But comics talk inappropriately to each other all the time so I didn’t think much of it. All I said was that I didn’t want to go on the road with him, yet it turned into this whole circus. Finally, the scandal breaks, he admits it and now nobody is calling to ask what I think – well, except you. This is about so much more than “Kevin Spacey’s bad, we fired him, who’s next?” Women have to drive the narrative. We need to change the culture.

You were a writer on Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, which won two Golden Globes last week…
I don’t want to take much credit. I was just a consultant on the standup scenes and helped punch up the script. It’s so beautifully made and was great to be involved with.

It’s loosely based on Joan Rivers’s emergence on the comedy scene. Were you a fan?
Not so much her comedy, although that’s brilliant too. For me, it was about her drive. Her memoir, Enter Talking, was so inspirational. I admire that she never stopped, no matter how bleak it was. We became friends in the last few years of her life. She told me “You’re funny” which was a dream come true. Such a warm, generous person. She was my comedy mother.

Did you make any New Year resolutions?
I don’t believe in them. January’s cold and dark, so why make it harder? Just sleep, eat and get through it, then make resolutions in spring when you’re more motivated.

Jen Kirkman: The All New Material, Girl Tour is at Soho theatre from 29 January to 3 February

Hitchcock, Hepburn and Dirty Harry: vintage movie posters – in pictures

Original movie posters remain one of the most vibrant sectors of the cultural antiques trade. Produced for classic films including Psycho, Roman Holiday and The Italian Job, these original Hollywood posters from online marketplace AbeBooks are all priced in excess of £1,000 due to their age, scarcity, condition, and cultural and artistic significance

Griff Rhys Jones: ‘My best kiss? I kissed all the Spice Girls once’

Born in Cardiff, Griff Rhys Jones, 64, began his career on the BBC’s Not The Nine O’Clock News, which ran from 1979-82. He went on to develop a comedy partnership with Mel Smith that lasted 20 years. He is also an Olivier award-winning stage actor. His UK tour, Where Was I?, starts on 18 January. He is married with two children and lives in Suffolk.

When were you happiest?
I’ll be at my happiest today, and probably my gloomiest at some point today, too.

What is your greatest fear?
Physically, violence done to my close family. Mentally, voids.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
I take on work that I shouldn’t, and reject things I should accept. I’m lazy. I lose my cool. Become emotionally committed. And so forth.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Deploration. Criticise, by all means. Argue. Dispute. But what is all this public “shaming” and mob sanctimoniousness, because someone has expressed a view that contradicts your own?

What was your most embarrassing moment?
Forgetting a soap star’s name on stage in front of 2,000 of her fans. I can’t say who it was, because I’ve forgotten it again, and I fear that these days everybody else has, too.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
An actor. Then I grew out of that and became one by default. Or sort of one: “Not really an actor”, said Michael Billington.

What is your phone wallpaper?
A picture of my wife sitting waiting for luggage at Heathrow and exhibiting two things I don’t possess: loveliness and self-composure.

What do you most dislike about your appearance?
My pop eyes and my apparent agedness.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
Tom Hollander would audition. Max Boyce would get the part.

Which book changed your life?
It’s a superfluity of books that counts. Don’t just read that one book, everybody: read lots and that will keep changing your life.

To whom would you most like to say sorry, and why?
Sorry, I’m British and middle class, so I’ve already apologised to virtually everybody I have ever met.

What does love feel like?
Adolescent love feels like exquisite self-indulgence. Long-term love feels like a warm bath that needs a trickle of extra hot water every now and then.

What was the best kiss of your life?
I kissed all the Spice Girls on television once.

Have you ever said ‘I love you’ and not meant it?
I am not good at saying “I love you” to people whom I do love and who need me to say it. I shudder at people who use the phrase casually: “Love you, hon!”

How do you relax?
I sail an old boat.

How often do you have sex?
Lots.

What keeps you awake at night?
The next morning. It rarely turns out as bad as I think it’s going to be.

What song would you like played at your funeral?
No songs, please. Don’t make a fuss.

How would you like to be remembered?
As a charming, helpful, solicitous, generous, loving, carefree and constantly funny companion, lover and father. Some hope of that.