THE FAIR MAID OF THE WEST

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _RSC STRATFORD-UPON-AVON.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _14th JAN.

December 13, 2023

images © Ali Wright @ RSC.

It isn’t difficult to spend considerable chunks of Isobel McArthur’s postmodern riff on The Fair Maid of the West feeling the slightest bit, well, tipsy.

For starters, the RSC’s Swan Theatre (which, incidentally, housed a Trevor Nunn staging of the same show as its inaugural production back in 1986), and its surrounding foyers and antechambers have all been given something of a tavernous makeover. Stalls seating plucked out and replaced with pub benches, chairs and tables (complete with branded beer mats, naturally). Hand-scribbled posters put out calls for karaoke nights, grand re-openings and details of ‘tonight’s special’ (‘booze’). Ana Inés and Jabares-Pita’s wooden, earthy staging interlocks and wheels about to form not one, not two, but three different drinking joints (not to mention a ship!) over the course of the show.

There’s a palpable sense of place throughout. Honest-to-goodness, dirt under the nails, pre-gentrified boozers of a maritime slant and coastal flavour (bandying, as the plot, does between Plymouth and Cornwall mostly). The key narrative beats of Thomas Heywood’s renaissance rom-com play out moderately intact (if knowingly sillier), as intrepid barmaid Liz (Amber James) sets out on a journey of self-determination and entrepreneurial flare after an attempt to court her by a kindly well-to-do (Philip Labey) backfires spectacularly.

It’s from here where the fidelity mostly freewheels into the beer cellar, though. If McArthur’s take on Fair Maid knows where it’s set, its giddy whirlwind of comedic interjections and modern flourishes throw up a dogged middle finger to any strict nineteenth Century trappings of time. Fifties-style jukeboxes place alongside bags of Scampi Fries and mentions of WKD, whilst regular musical interludes see the talented cast blitz their way through everything from Queen to ‘Viva España’.

McArthur certainly has form here. Her Olivier-winning, similarly bonkers take on Pride & Prejudice recently finished up a successful and acclaimed UK tour.

And yet, as she cheekily acknowledges in an early audience address from the show’s resident narrator (Richard Katz), Heywood’s Fair Maid is no Austen in terms of ubiquity and cultural capital. In a splash of mildly-Brechtian reflexivity, Kurtz’s ultimately quite important ‘metaphysical’ overseer reads out a letter from the playwright herself saying, essentially, ‘well nobody’s even read it, so balls to fidelity!’.

It certainly preps the audience for some of the madcap tomfoolery to come, though it’s hard to shake the sense that Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of)’s inspired approach – of having the whole thing essentially be a metafiction improvised by a group of cleaners – still feels like a tighter and more motivated approach than what McArthur and company opt for here. Tonally, structurally and in regards to focus, this Fair Maid veers about wildly in the first Act in particular.

“It crackles with an energy of what feels at times like a theatrical love letter to the boozer…”

Still, it’s irrepressible, silly and routinely funny throughout and, like any good time down the ‘local’, plenty buoyant and colourful. It crackles with an energy of what feels at times like a theatrical love letter to the boozer and its denizens; littered with characters and types you could find propping up the bar at practically any pub in the land. Matthew Woodyatt is a hoot as a sensitive singleton still reeling from his wife having shacked up with his brother, whilst David Rankine lights up the periphery as both a Glaswegian wino and human jukebox early on.

And as Liz quite literally sets sail with a cadre of colourful companions come the second act (after a jolting, sobering close to its first half), McArthur’s penchant for weaving the surprisingly emotive and powerful in amidst the farcical eventually takes root.

Revelations surrounding tertiary characters land with surprising heft, and there’s an undeniable universality to its overall messages and ideas of retrospective carpe diem, regret and self-determination. Liz herself proves a wilful, steely yet flawed core, with a neat feminist streak that never registers as obnoxious or forced. Her wiles and skills as a woman and barkeep both are put to the test and pit her as leader, pioneer and diplomat all.

If it all descends into a finale that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Monty Python skit – unapologetic cultural stereotypes and all – then Fair Maid’s second half has at least afforded us enough time and development with Liz and her fellowship to become surprisingly invested in seeing their quest succeed.

Much of this is courtesy of a stellar cast doing great work. Amber James is the beating heart and implacable anchor around which the high-concept hijinks can pivot. She does a terrific job keeping it mostly earnest and straight, even as barbershop quartets, bare-all poets and foppish, effeminate Spanish royalty spring up about her. It’s a confident, grounding and moving turn that James pulls off masterfully.

Amber James is teriffic… handsomely supported by what must surely be two of the finest comedic talents currently treading the boards”

Cutting sillier, she’s handsomely supported by what must surely be two of the finest comedic talents currently treading the boards. Emmy Stonelake, recently fantastic in McArthur’s own Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) is exquisite throughout as predominately Liz’s brash, fiery confidante, Clem. And the seemingly elastic Tom Babbage, also recently great as a skittish Professor Plum in Cluedo, steals scenes left, right and centre in a panoply of roles, most prominently an overly talkative postal worker who professes to have seen, done and even spoken it all.

Whilst it may lack some of the cohesion and ironic polish of Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of), and it mostly eschews much of the overt swashbuckling that some past interpretations have leant into, McArthur, James and company ultimately deliver an infectious romp for the festive season. Like some of its wobbly-legged characters, it’s an unpredictable, scattershot, even haphazard beast, occasionally registering as something more akin to a bemusing hangover fever dream than renaissance literature.

In many ways though, that’s sort of the point. It isn’t high art, nor does it profess to be. Instead, the RSC and McArthur invite you to pull up a chair and join James and friends for a Christmas and New Year of bawdy, boozy fun at a time when they’re perhaps needed more than ever.

We’ll drink to that.

 A raucous, freewheeling, infectiously fun time down the boozer. James steers a madcap ship with gravitas and heart, whilst Stonelake, Babbage and Woodyatt offer up gorgeous supporting work. Raise a glass to quality nonsense this Christmas…

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