Review by Raphael Kohn
After the success of her recent Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), it’s pretty clear to… well everybody, really, that Isobel McArthur is one of those playwrights you really need to keep your eye on. Now commissioned by the RSC to rejuvenate Thomas Heywood’s 1631 play into a contemporary hit, McArthur has elected to fill it with handheld microphones, catchy (and some familiar) songs, and a hell of a lot of fun. The Fair Maid of the West, her latest endeavour premiering at the Swan Theatre, is just that, yet another treat from the RSC filled with wit, energy and intelligence.
If you were to go into this expecting a faithful adaptation of Heywood’s play, you’d probably leave disappointed. McArthur has revolutionised and completely rejuvenated the text, taking most of it into modern English while still playing with pentametric rhyming couplets from time to time. The story, deviating much from the original plot (though as the ‘Pub Regular’/Narrator acknowledges, nobody cares much about given the age of the play), concerns a pub landlady as she establishes a healthy business in The Open Arms pub in Cornwall, before setting sail across the sea to Spain for the sake of Spencer, a man infatuated with her.
But if you go in expecting something brilliantly McArthuresque and a tonne of music-filled fun, well then, dear reader, you would be in for a treat. Practically ripping up the old text and bringing it back to life, full of anarchic anachronisms and funny titbits of comedy, McArthur’s adaptation references the original, sure, but creates something genuinely original too. Slimming the plot down and removing much of the original side plots, this new adaptation is pacy, letting the most important moments shine when they most need to, while giving space and attention to new themes and ideas from the mind of McArthur.
And so we receive a production that is deeply funny and modern, with lines seemingly referencing the politics of today, and with fast-paced gags aplenty. It’s not always consistent – especially in the darker second act the energy wavers from time to time to give space to the darker themes at play – but is certainly a genuinely witty and, despite being an adaptation, original work. Directed by its writer, The Fair Maid of the West centres around its comedy themes with a cast of fine performers bringing out the laughs with ease.
Mostly led by Amber James as ‘Liz’, the reinvented version of Heywood’s ‘Bess’, this truly brilliant cast puts precisely zero feet wrong. James’ Liz is powerful, but ultimately endearing, an excellent lead whose performance is gripping from start to finish. Her suitor, ‘Spencer’, played with comedic charm by Philip Labey, is the perfect comedic counterweight to Liz’s seriousness. Labey is perfectly cast as, by and large, the laughing stock of the production, with his stupidity played to the max from his very first scene, while never falling too far into the trap of becoming overly slapstick in his delivery.
But it is not Liz who begins the play. Instead, reflecting the 17th-century origins of the play, the narrator role of the ‘Pub Regular’, played with exquisite comedic timing balanced with excellent subtler ensemble moments by Richard Katz, delivers a cracking monologue in rhyming couplets, poking fun of the play in a rather meta twist while making himself integral to the plot too.
The ensemble are terrific, weaving together song, dance and crowd work in their performances brilliantly. They can do everything – Irish dancing, singing, speaking in multiple languages perfectly, and playing musical instruments both on the main stage and dotted around the circle. Emmy Stonelake in particular stands out in her portrayal of ‘Clem’, both tomboyish and hilarious at all times.
To transform the Swan into the ‘Open Arms’ pub, Ana Inés Jabares-Pita has done a stellar job, replacing the front few rows of seats with ‘pub’ seating, using the onstage bar setpieces in creative ways to create new settings in the second act as the characters make their way on a boat to Spain. While there is a slightly disappointing lack of audience interaction in the pub – the show is billed as having ‘limited interaction with the actors’ from the pub seats but really nothing at all happens there – it is still a great design that delights and pleases in equal measure. Sinéad McKenna’s lighting is simple – borderline too simple at times that doesn’t match the energy of McArthur’s production – but when it gets going and works, it works splendidly.
Yet again another a stunner in the RSC’s beautiful Swan theatre venue, there is so much to love about this pacy and delightful play. With cracking performances and a terrific script that is both chaotically funny yet surprisingly poignant, there’s no reason to miss this wonderful reinvention of the somewhat forgotten Heywood play. Come on down to The Open Arms!
The Fair Maid of the West plays in the Swan Theatre until 14thJanuary 2024. Tickets are available from https://www.rsc.org.uk/the-fair-maid-of-the-west/
Photos by Ali Wright