No-one believes that Shakespeare wrote anything at all of Fair Em, the Miller’s Daughter of Manchester, although it was once thought he might have played William the Conqueror; so Jack Taylor has grown his hair and beard like the Droeshout portrait and carries on like a minor relative of Sir Toby Belch.
The play is one of the Shakespearean Apocrypha, written around 1590, and attributed to the bard by a librarian of King Charles II. Director Phil Willmott has exposed the plot pretty well, but in so doing he also lays bare the thinness of the writing. And the acting at the Union is on the far side of coarse and lumpy, like cold porridge.
The regal invader has banished a nobleman and his daughter, who fetch up in Lancashire disguised as a jolly miller and fair “impoverished” Em (pretty Caroline Haines; she breaks hearts and fends off suitors by the awkwardly non-PC ruse of affecting physical disability (deafness and blindness).
Willmott has bravely, but misguidedly, decided on a 'Carry On' approach for a 'Monty Python' narrative, so that William develops the hots for a Swedish princess who in turn hatches the old “bed trick” so that the lusty monarch runs away under cover, not with her, but with the King of Denmark’s daughter, the hideously frowsty Blanche, who pleases him, he says, like withered fruit.
Meanwhile, there’s trouble up north at the mill, where the peasants are revolting and Em is hoicking bags of flour, and not just because she kneads the dough. Her suitors throw each other’s presents in the river and a miller’s “boy” (doddery Robert Donald) hands a piss pot to a chap in the front row, an odd sort of peace offering.
On top of which, a quintet of singers called Green Willow intone (but not always in tune) folk songs in the background. Em’s true love Manville (David Ellis) does a runner when she can’t see him (literally) and tries it on with a merchant’s daughter in Chester. All is resolved without too many surprises - well, none at all, actually - and Blanche (Madeline Gould) is suddenly ripe for plucking.
This isn’t one of those plays like The Two Noble Kinsmen or Edward III, let alone Pericles, where you can see, and indeed fully accept, the arguments for attribution, or part-attribution. It is, as Willmott admits, a reasonably well-structured romp. But its rompishness, using disguise and hidden identity, is pretty ropey.
Even a fairly elegantly staged masked ball which turns into an almighty fracas is not, here at least, remotely funny. And the one or two scenes that have a vestige of poetic tenderness - between Tom Gordon-Gill’s Brad Pitt-ishly handsome marquis and his captured Swedish princess (Alys Metcalf) - are too brief to be either significant or persuasive.