Writer and director Tony Cownie has
established a particular niche at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, taking
potentially overlooked 18th century comedies (like Carlo Goldoni's
the play’s focus on women surviving in a male-centred world.
Cowley must rank among the earliest women to write for the British stage, so it’s hardly surprising that Cownie retains – arguably sharpens – the play’s focus on women surviving in a male-centred world. At the heart of the action are Letitia Hardy and Doricourt, a young couple betrothed since childhood, who are now expected to marry. Just back from his Grand Tour of Europe, however, Doricourt finds Scottish women pale when compared to their European peers, and is totally unimpressed by Letitia. Outraged by such “indifference”, she schemes to subtly seduce the man after first driving him to hate her.
Plenty of Cownie’s writerly and directorial tropes are on display here: not least Neil Murray’s colourful costumes, which are deliberately contrasted against his singularly two-dimensional, monochromatic settings based on period engravings. Cownie also gives the dialogue an invigorating brush-up into a more local (and, at times, distinctly modern) style, so that the whole play genuinely totters on the edge of Pantomime. (There’s even the sight of Steven McNicoll, as Letitia’s father Provost Hardy, doing a turn as dame when allegedly “disguised” as a woman during the all-important masked ball that is the heart of the second half.)
There are definite opportunities, therefore, for some cast members to play to the back of the stalls, not least Richard Conlon as the misogynistic Courtall who, in a disappointing example of directorial restraint, isn’t given a moustache to twirl. That said, his character’s scheme – to seduce innocent Lady Frances Touchwood, recently married and new to Edinburgh High Society – brings us to an arguably more interesting subplot in which merry widows Mrs Racket and Mrs Ogle (a delightful Pauline Knowles and Nicola Roy) encourage Frances out from the stifling protectiveness of her man-child husband Sir George (a brilliant Grant O’Rourke).
Angela Hardie and Angus Miller give some genuine depths to the relatively “straight” roles of Letitia and Doricourt, but there are plenty of delicious characterisations to enjoy around them, not least John Ramage’s gossip-obsessed journalist Flutter and McNicoll’s wheezing, dandruff-covered servant. Importantly, though, Cownie as director ensures that his ensemble nevertheless works well together, with the whole production remaining larger than the sum of its parts. Familiar in many respects, but fun nonetheless.