The Fair Maid of The West
RSC Swan Theatre
The bawdy world of drinking houses and the rapier wit of those who pull the pints has been a rich seam for playwrights down the centuries and this modern adaptation certainly raises a glass to that tradition.
Wrongly-accused of murder, beset by money troubles, unhappy in love and surrounded by some truly bonkers people, the barmaid of this particular hostelry has an awful lot to deal with.
Amber James, as the maid in question, is superb throughout. It’s a performance of bravado and wit, underlined by faultless timing and with a healthy dose of sympathy and vulnerability. It takes real strength to hold firm when so much around is heading off in all directions but that ability is certainly there.
Fine balance comes from Philip Labey as the potentially wet love interest Spencer who, thanks to some moments of inspired fun, is terrific in his own right.
The pubs and bars we visit on this rollicking journey are all frequented by the most bizarre cast of oddballs and characters imaginable. And among them some truly hilarious performances.
Emmy Stonelake’s Clem is a feisty Welsh sidekick with a fine understanding of insouciance, Matthew Woodyatt’s hopelessly timid Bardolf and Aruhan Galieva’s upstart Roughman balance nicely and Tom Babbage’s nerdy, braggart postman Windbag never drops below pin sharp.
Add in a generous helping of modern karaoke and jukebox classics masquerading as subtle comments on the action and you have an intoxicating combination impossible not to enjoy.
The real star of the show however has to be Isobel McArthur’s blistering, off-the-wall comic script.
Only a line-by-line comparison would reveal how little of the original made it as far as this production, but in the face of such brilliant invention and relentless fun, only a true pedant would want to make such a comparison.
There’s nothing off-limits in this adaptation. National stereotypes, gender gags, love’s follies, jibes at the nature of theatre both Elizabethan and contemporary, the targets are exhaustive and all the shots hit home.
Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s modular set is every bit as versatile as the musicians both in the cast and out in providing surprise after surprise. It’s an ensemble piece in which every person deserves the plaudits coming down the way.
Deep down there’s a message here about perseverance and love winning through. And, thanks to the modern psyche, an overlay of positivity about women making their own way in the world. All very worthy and never overplayed in Isobel McArthur’s full-throttle direction.
But it’s the fun, the crazy capers and some utterly marvellous daft observational comedy that will get the punters streaming through the doors of this weird and wonderful pub.