The Belle’s Stratagem

Arts University Bournemouth (AUB)     Studio Theatre, AUB Campus, Poole JJ     8 December 2022

I had never heard of this play and I had never had the pleasure of seeing an AUB Production before. So, as I left on a freezing cold December evening, I feared I might be heading to see some weird impenetrable modern piece of theatre. How wrong I was.

The Belle’s Stratagem is a romantic comedy of manners. It is the most successful work of its playwright, Hannah, and premiered on 22 February 1780, filling the 2,000-seat Drury Lane theatre. It is the tale of Letitia Hardy, promised to the charming Doricourt whom she hasn’t seen since childhood. At their first meeting as adults, she realises that she loves him, but he seems quite unmoved by her. Determined to marry a man who feels the same way about her, she plans and implements a stratagem to captivate him. A concurrent story relates to the newly married Touchwoods and the paranoia of Sir George that his lovely country-bred wife will be corrupted by the fashionable elite of London; a paranoia that his friends seek to play upon…

The AUB Drama course clearly has a wealth of talent to draw upon. It was a lovely ensemble cast who complemented and supported one another extremely well. In the early stages (perhaps first night nerves), projection could have been better at times and the super-fast pace of line delivery sometimes compromised diction and clarity. Otherwise, it was a truly excellent show.

The stage setting was simple but effective and I thought the space was utilised well and particularly the use of the balcony. Set changes were slick and discreet which enabled seamless scene changes. I was pleased to see the set change team in costume.

When a play is such a strong ensemble piece, it can be difficult and maybe unfair to single out individual performances. However, there were a couple of standout performances.  When Mrs Racket (Sophia Barnett) burst on to the stage the play went up a gear. What a well-delivered interpretation. I could almost smell the brace of Labradors she must have left in the Range Rover she parked outside. Also, Brandon Duquemin’s Sir George Touchwood was a lovely characterisation and the clarity of his delivery was perfect throughout. I should also mention Flutter (Freddy Bridgeman) who brought an injection of comic energy on every entrance.

The ‘what makes a fine lady’ scene with Mrs Racket, Sir George Mrs Ogle (Elle Stokes) and Lady Frances Touchwood (Anne Newenhuis) was a high point for me. I assume the set malfunction was unexpected, but it was handled brilliantly and if it is possible to recreate the spontaneity required when something like that happens, I’d keep it in. The finale dance was the perfect ending.

As well as drawing on the drama course, AUB Productions also availed itself of the talents of the costume and make up courses. I am not sure if there was a specific period in mind, so I’ll call the costumes retro, but they worked and were appropriate to each character. The costume team clearly had a field day with the masquerade ball scene and all costumes were fabulous. Make up was spot in and the wigs were fantastic.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening. There are performances on Friday 9 December at 7:30pm and on Saturday 10 December at 2:30pm and 7:30pm and it you get the chance I would urge you to go along to see it. I will certainly be back to see another AUB Production.