Spice Girls songs, gay best friends, psychological warfare and a slew of fiercely independent, single women. It sounds like ‘Sex and the City: The Musical’ but Hannah Cowley’s ‘The Belle’s Stratagem’ was penned in 1780.
This is the first revival since 1888 and Red Handed Theatre Company are making up for lost time with an impressively irreverent and coherent production.
The action still unfolds in eighteenth-century London, with ladies swirling around in their finery and cut-glass-accented men bounding about in breeches. Director Jessica Swale also stays faithful to Cowley’s plot, which sees Letitia Hardy, with the help of her wily widowed chums, scheme her way into her fiancé’s favours.
Where Swale departs from the original is with her cheeky, contemporary flourishes and bonkers musical numbers composed by Laura Forrest-Hay. Four girls dressed in white, washer-women caps perched primly on their heads, form an impromptu girl band. It’s like watching a nutty ‘X Factor’ audition, as the group shimmy along to the strains of Lily Allen and Sugababes.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the ladies who get the loudest laughs. Maggie Steed’s Mrs Racket, encased in a puffy dress as bold as her bright red hair, is a kinder Cruella de Vil. Gina Beck’s Letitia Hardy is wonderfully reckless.
But the biggest lady of them all is camp friend Flutter (Christopher Logan), whose gasps of delight at each new dotty development mirror our own.