Handsomely performed but less relevant than playful
Despite Tony Cownie's adaptation of Hannah Cowley's 18th Century script – the action is transposed from London to Edinburgh and the humour admits a broader, pantomime comedy – The Belle's Stratagem remains something of a museum piece. Playing on the tropes of the Restoration and bourgeois comedies of the Enlightenment era, it subverts their typical domestic antics through an intelligent and witty female protagonist – more usually, the men would compete for the woman as a prize. Cownie's measured direction allows the ensemble to make the most of the fashionable, shallow characters while bringing home a simplistic message of female empowerment: the set-piece masquerade ball managing to both reveal the belle's remarkable talents and the absurd shenanigans of the wealthy Edinburgh ruling classes.
Cownie's revival manages to update the wit and celebrates the ingenuity of the women but cannot hide the insularity of this theatrical world. There are feminist slogans bandied about in the script but Cownie is honest enough to 18th Century culture not to challenge the assumptions of domestic happiness that allow a resolution. There's a sense of cosy familiarity – not least in the theatrical in-jokes – that plays on the fantasy of performance to leave this production an example of beautifully acted, moderately directed and unassumingly safe old-fashioned theatre that is ultimately more of a sop to contemporary sensibilities than a bracing critique. It speaks consolingly on the matter of female empowerment while remaining at some distance from robust intersectional feminism: a charming production that ultimately rings hollow.
Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 10 Mar.