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Theatre review: The Belle's Stratagem 
1st-Oct-2011 06:23 pm
Unfortunately I never seem to be available to see Jessica Swale's very funny productions of Restoration comedies at the Southwark Playhouse until the last day, so don't have a chance to recommend them. As with last year's The Rivals, Swale's approach to Hannah Cowley's Georgian comedy The Belle's Stratagem is to keep the visuals strictly of the period, but the style up-to-the-minute, with the cast flirting outrageously with each other and the audience, and occasionally breaking into 1780s arrangements of, this time around, the Spice Girls, Lily Allen and the Sugababes among others.

Letitia Hardy and Mr Doricourt have been betrothed since childhood but never met. When they finally meet she's instantly smitten but the cosmopolitan Doricourt (the improbably handsome Michael Lindall) is not particularly fussed. In a plot twist that's almost postmodern long before there was such a thing, Letitia (hugely likeable Gina Beck) knows how romcoms work and proceeds to try and make him hate her, thinking that'll be easier to convert to love than his present indifference. In a subplot, jealous George Touchwood is is keeping his new wife (Hannah Spearmint Spearritt) away from the corrupting influence of fashionable society, but the "unladylike" Mrs Racket and Miss Ogle (a couple of winningly funny performances from Maggie Steed and Jackie Clune) have other ideas.

Hugely popular in its day, Sheridan successfully consigned the play to obscurity in favour of his own works. Swale makes a great case for reviving it with a breathless, irreverent production full of belly laughs and almost universally well-judged - only Joseph MacNab as Touchwood errs on the side of turning a big performance into a hammy one. Swale's eye for an attractive cast is a good as ever, as well as Lindall there's Jeremy Joyce, Tim Dorsett and Mark Fountain who are all very cute and perform to a high standard. I'll be happy if the director's raucous forays into the 18th century become an annual event at Southwark (wherever the actual venue may end up being) and if it's too late to send anyone to see this production, I can at least recommend you keep an eye out for future ones.

The Belle's Stratagem by Hannah Cowley ends tonight at Southwark Playhouse.
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