Review – The Belle’s Stratagem – Red Handed Theatre at Southwark Playhouse

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One of the greatest pleasures for me of starting up this theater-focused blog has been the opportunity it’s given me to become a part of a community of theater fanatics. Previously, my reviews were short and frequently seemed to pollute the timestream of the blogging community where I wrote about my daily life; they rarely got a lot of commentary, even when I poured my heart and soul into writing something fantastic. But somehow writing this meant that I was able to make connections with other people who shared my theater fanaticism. We weren’t going to see shows to entertain out of town friends or even have a night on the town with the girls; we were going because we love plays, we want to see as many as we can, and we’re always hoping for something wonderful happen when the lights come up. And some of us write about the shows we see, and, with a little luck, an online conversation can turn into an in-person friendship.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that last Saturday I had the good luck to be invited to accompany my friend Ian on a trip to the Southwark Playhouse to see a play I knew nothing about other than it was, um, a matinee (and free for me) and that I could get to it by going to London Bridge tube station – and that Ian would be there and we could have a good visit about all of the shows we’ve seen lately. I did actually go to the website to find its running time (nearly 3 hours, eek!), but I basically didn’t read a thing about it. That’s how I like my theater: unexpected and hopefully great fun. For those of you who saw Drowsy Chaperone, think of the little prayer of the Man in the Chair: “Dear God, let it be good.”

And on this pre-autumnal afternoon … it was! The lights went up on a group of people in period (looked Revolutionary War to me, 1776ish) costume, singing about … well, it sounded like a madrigal … but then it sort of morphed into a pop tune … which it was! I didn’t recognize it specifically, but later on I heard “Take My Breath Away” interleaved with something more suitable for a harpsichord – very clever and a good marker for what a fun show this was going to be.

The plot is something somewhere between Much Ado About Nothing and London Assurance (with a solid dose of Dangerous Liaisons) – something about a young wife trying to get her very jealous husband to let her get out and socialize a bit, something about another girl trying to make someone fall in love with her – there are mistaken identities, tricks being played, clever comeuppances, and lots of fun as the characters trade barbs about each other. In fact, the dialogue, chock full of jokes about London manners and the foibles of the upper class, seemed so entirely accurate I thought maybe the whole thing had been written recently and given a faux-vintage patina. But it wasn’t: it was genuine 1780, and genuinely funny, and written by a woman (a Hannah Cowley). I was surprised and pleased to see that it all felt so modern (despite the fixation on “virtue”).

Of course it was all just brought into much higher relief by the real zest the actors put into their roles. From Michael Lindall (as Doricourt, the male lead)’s loving caress of his hat to Christopher Logan (as Flutter)’s screaming queen dash off of the stage – well, to the ENDLESS mugging of sad-sack husband Touchwood (Joseph McNab) – I was enchanted at the genuinely high quality of acting laid out for my enjoyment. Overall, those two and a half hours raced right by as I cheered on our spunky heroines (not just Gina Beck and Hannah Spearitt but also the older women Maggie Steed and Jackie Clunes) as they ran circles around the not entirely sensible men in their lives – and then laughed when Them What Done Them Wrong got theirs later on. I’ve got to say, I haven’t seen anything by Red Handed Theatre before, but after this show, Ms Jessica Swale is now on my list of people that I will need to make my plans around. Congratulations to you and the cast and as for my Imaginary Reader: book now!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, Septem ber 10th, 2011. The show continues through October 1st. Really the only thing I could complain about in this whole show is that some of the female actors hadn’t really gone for proper 18th century hairstyles. What a deliciously trivial complaint!)

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