The Fair Maid of the West at the RSC’s Swan Theatre – review

Isobel McArthur’s adaptation of the Thomas Heywood romp runs until 14 January

Aruhan Galieva, Amber James, Matthew Woodyatt, Emmy Stonelake and Tom Babbage in a scene from The Fair Maid of the West at the RSC's Swan Theatre
Aruhan Galieva, Amber James, Matthew Woodyatt, Emmy Stonelake and Tom Babbage in The Fair Maid of the West, © RSC / Ali Wright

Thomas Heywood’s two-part buccaneering romp was the inaugural production when the Swan first opened its doors back in 1986. That version, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Imelda Staunton and Sean Bean, was received as a riotous curtain-raiser for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s vibrant new venue in Stratford.

Nearly 40 years on, the company revisits the play and puts it in the hot-ticket directorial hands of Isobel McArthur, fresh from her success with Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of). An irreverence for the source material, then, is only to be expected, and McArthur happily jettisons Heywood’s original text in favour of her own free adaptation, condensed into one part and completely rewritten for a 21st-century audience.

Gone are the sexism, the patriarchal dominance, the easy violence and war-mongering of much of the original. Instead, there’s social commentary, slapstick comedy and a fair few bastardised pop songs to appeal to today’s theatregoing masses. Slightly uncomfortably in a show that gleefully pokes fun at everything from pub bores to Euroscepticism, there’s also a vein of casual racism in some of the comedy stereotypes: the Spanish come out of it particularly badly, although the English, it has to be said, don’t fare much better.

McArthur’s emphasis is plainly on the laughs – there’s little in the way of a deeper message, beyond a rather trite ‘all you need is love’ sentiment – and let’s be honest, there’s nothing wrong with that. Occasionally the relentless quest for a gag becomes tiresomely frenetic, and some of the jokes could certainly do with sharpening, but there are some terrific set pieces thanks to Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s set design and the judicious use of trap doors. Apparently, there are also comedy rodents along the way, but sightlines in the Swan mean that it depends on where you sit as to whether you get that particular joke.

The cast, on the other hand, are uniformly excellent. Amber James as the wrongly-accused barmaid Liz has enormous strength, humour and pathos, even if her character is less fair and more manipulative than the title suggests. Philip Labey holds his suitor Spencer on the right side of ridiculous, developing him credibly from lovesick nincompoop to heart-in-the-right-place partner. And there are some wonderfully funny turns from Tom Babbage as the village postie and know-all, and Emmy Stonelake as a wise-beyond-her-years teenager.

Richard Katz brings a calming influence and gravitas to his narrator role, pontificating in iambic pentameter as a nod to Heywood but also with a neat line in mischief and an elegant twist in the second act, which races breathlessly to the finish line with another rousing song.

It’s flawed but feisty, and frankly, any show that can seamlessly weave “Y Viva España”, Irish dancing and Nick Lowe’s “Peace, Love and Understanding” together with such a sense of raucous, chaotic joy has earned itself an extra star.