As our national companies appear to have given up the ghost on lost treasures in the Restoration and Georgian theatre, you have to admire the spunk of director Jessica Swale in exhuming this feminist retort to Sheridan, Goldsmith and Farquhar, even if the play is not as well written as its examples.
But Swale has a fair point in claiming that Hannah Cowley (1743-1809), the Devonian wife of a clerical officer and journalist in London, has been overlooked for too long. Her first play, The Runaway, was produced by David Garrick at Drury Lane in 1776. Four years later, The Belle's Stratagem, her biggest success, established her reputation which flourished well into the next century; the play was last done in Britain in 1888.
Swale's approach, full of Georgian flourish and swagger, is the opposite of pious. The company assemble on designer Simon Kenny's wooden floor (backed with velvet curtains) singing a "ding dong" song, chased off the stage by the hero's unwanted four cousins from Northumberland, one of whom is none other than Jackie Clune in a baby bonnet.
Clune doubles later as the viperish Mrs Ogle – "It is so long since I've been in Shropshire," she says, as if referring to a nasty disease – an affiliate of Maggie Steed's marriage-fixing gossip Mrs Racket, a woman of whom it might justly be said that she is all cross-court volley but no balls.
This crew, in cahoots with the heroine's crotchety old father (Robin Soans), have set up a liaison between the delightful Letitia Hardy and her arrogant beau, Doricourt, just back from the Grand Tour and superior to ideas of love and marriage.
Letitia gets the honey she deserves in Gina Beck's liquid and lovely performance; and, eventually, the man she merits in Michael Lindall's preposterous Doricourt, whose best chum Courtall (Marc Baylis) has to retire to France after attempting to seduce a pert country wife at a ball (turns out she's a prostitute).
The real country wife, Lady Touchwood, is deliciously played, too, by Hannah Spearritt, formerly of S Club 7, and she represents another form of feminist resistance, even though neither Letitia nor Lady T are a patch on George Farquhar's greatest comic creations Silvia or Mrs Sullen, let alone William Wycherley's Margery Pinchwife.
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