The Fair Maid of the West

Reviewer's rating

If you want a delightful, fast-paced, cleverly written play to see, I strongly recommend The Fair Maid of the West at the Swan theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon for sheer entertainment and theatrical energy. Isobel McArthur has revised, re-written, updated and generally made more accessible a plot by Thomas Heywood. This four-hundred-year-old play becomes the template and starting point for a fine evening of satire and fun with a very modern and clear feminist twist. It’s also a rather complex story with some very funny convolutions. Act One is the set-up, so pay attention; because the payoffs in Act Two are swift. It’s verbally a delight too, with a script that includes some very clever rhyming couplets and lots of snappy dialogue exchanges. The funky costumes by designer Ana Ines Jabares-Pita and the clever moveable pub that can also become a boat give some visual references to the original. The director Isobel McArthur has given the show a wonderful pace and flow of movement.

Amber James plays the attractive, morally solid and upright Fair Maid displaying a range of emotions as she moves from the down-and-out rat catcher in a pub to a publican and landlady who can solve any issues for all comers and who turns even the most wicked people she meets into paragons. She portrays a character who is candid, forthright and strong making the original concept of the heroine in the Heywood drama comprehensible and clear for our times.

Philip Labey is a suitably attractive, sweet natured and loving Spencer, a hero who is a kind of male version of the faithful Griselda, a man who’s not to be put off by Liz’s relationship-phobia or her at times shrewish rejections. He is the embodiment of overt and loyal love. The various members of the ensemble each have standout moments, with particularly memorable turns by Aruhan Alieva as Roughman and Tom Babbage as the delightful Windbag. Emmy Stonelake anchors her character of Clem with real energy; and Richard Katz is a particularly memorable character in his role, especially for its significance to the story.

I also want to praise the appearance of David Rankine as the King of Spain and Marc Giro as the Duke de Lerma. Watch out for them! They are almost worth attending the play for their hilarious and surprising sequence alone, one handled with touching aplomb.

The play is presented almost as a musical, using several classic jukebox songs you’ll recognise, so praise must particularly be given to Michael John McCathy for his notable work. The RSC has created a very strong evening of theatre from a clever use of the original Thomas Heywood text as a foundation for a modern melodramatic romance. The exploration of themes suggested by the original is clarified by Isobel McArthur for a contemporary audience; and this adaptation is also theatrically provocative and exciting enough to make one want to go back and read the original text to compare the two versions.