FAIR MAID OF THE WEST
is not difficult to guess who Thomas
Heywood was flattering with his 1599 swashbuckling
play about a plucky maid called Bess who is chaste and
true, and rules in a man's world. It might only be a
tavern to start with for his Elizabeth, but she ends up on
the open seas leading a victorious battle against the
Spanish, and wrapping the king of Fez round her little finger.
a plot that casually drops into Cornwall, the Azores and
Morocco, this play presents challenges to a small company
with a tiny budget and performance space. But Creative
Cow face them inventively and with vim. Beer barrels
are variously rearranged to suggest a bar or a ship's
prow; fight scenes are breathtakingly energetic; Elfyn
Jones's live music steers us through leaps of faith and
geography. (There's also a message on a screen to remind
us where we are.)
The result is
great fun, and exuberantly performed. Highlights include
Katherine Senior as the indomitable Bess, Steve Bennett as
the cowardly rogue Roughman, Tom Hackney as the sweet
young Clem, and the outrageously funny Christopher Barlow
as the Moroccan ruler enveloped in mint-green velvet and
There are some
problems of tone: the production slips close to pantomime
and slapstick, which can rather tug away from the core
story. The humour here is best when quiet and restrained.
Amid the romp are delicate, astute moments – including a
haunting image of slaves rowing a galley – and
crucially, you believe in Bess. Hers is a glorious reign
while it lasts, and this production a welcome reminder
that it was not only Shakespeare who wrote complex parts
Whats On Stage
Knott directs a right rollicking romp at the New Theatre in
Exeter (until 10 September) as Creative Cow interprets the
Elizabethan comedy The Fair Maid of The West.
Shakespeare’s lesser known
contemporary Thomas Heywood’s epic play is brought
beautifully to stage with tremendous gusto and understanding.
Played tongue-in-cheek with
superb facial expressions and timing by a talented, versatile
cast, the audience is transported, drink in hand, from
Plymouth dive to Fowey pub to the Azores and Morocco.
Handsome nobleman Spencer
(Jonathan Parish) has to flee England and leave his love Bess
Bridges (stridently played by the very able Katherine Senior)
after defending her honour to the death. There follows the
classic ‘lovelorn girl rejects all others to remain faithful
to absent heartthrob, rousts pompous would-be suitor and
proves her fidelity’ while episodes of farcical mistaken and
disguised identity lead predictably to the inevitable but
improbably coincidental meeting.
All this is couched in sea
shanties, superb sword fighting, knockabout comedy and
strutting Englishmen versus the world.
A simple set – bare boards
and a variety of staved containers – is cleverly employed as
taverns, ship and court with the addition only of the
occasional tankard, cushion and rope.. oh and a statute of
The ubiquitous pantomime Dame
Steve Bennett is the blustering rogue Roughman whose machismo
is harnessed by the cunning of good Bess, while Toby Gaffney
is a powerful presence as go-between Goodlack (and fight
Tom Hackney (last seen in
Exeter in Dumb Waiter) is, among other bit parts,
cheeky chappie tavern apprentice Clem who brings quick-witted
banter to play while Christopher Barlow is fabulously camp as
Mullisheg, milking every ounce of comedy from the character.
All, along with Nathan Banks,
Richard Warwick and Christopher Talon, make the most amazingly
swift costume changes to populate the stage with minor
characters, drunken revellers, sailors and swordsmen.
Elfyn Jones is responsible for
both the composition and playing of the excellent live music
to complete a very entertaining evening.
|Express and Echo
THIS production has
surpassed itself! It is filled with bawdy humour,
aggression, and a cocktail of theatrical styles, that
range from the ribaldry of beer drinking sailors in
Plymouth, to the seductive boudoirs of King Mellisheg's
court in Morocco.
This Elizabethan play,
written in 1599, by Thomas Heywood, is directed by Amanda
Knott at a cracking pace with the actors responded likes
dogs tearing a bone to bits.
One of the things which I
loved in this production, apart from the chaos, was the
simplicity of the language. Much of it is in rhyming
couplets that smacks of today's street language. The
scenery for this giant undertaking is no more than a load
of beer barrels rolled on to the stage by the pint
However, what is truly
amazing about this production is the vicious sword
fighting, done to the rhythm of a drum.
There are some stunning
performances, particularly from Katherine Senior, who is
the only woman in a cast of nine. Senior plays Bess, the
coquettish bar maid, who is pursued by three men, Steve
Bennett's Roughman, the snarling macho, Toby Gaffney's
dour Goodlack, and Jonathan Parrish as her hero Spencer.
This is a fabulous
|ELIZABETHAN playwright Thomas Heywood is said to
have written more than 200 plays, only a handful of
This late summer, audiences at the intimate New
Theatre in Exeter have the chance to see his second
work, The Fair Maid of the West (also known as A Girle
Worth Gold) in a swashbuckling Creative Cow
Chosen because of its “local” references, it is
the story of a lowly-born alehouse hostess and her
romance with a young nobleman, Spencer.
He can’t marry below his social station, and all his
friends warn him of the sort of woman she must be. But
he kills a man for insulting his Bess Bridges and
flees from the Devon shore, leaving her the care of
his Cornish inn.
While he’s off fighting Barbary pirates and
straggling Spanish Armada veterans, she’s making
money in the inn, sometimes dressing as a man to test
the local gallants.
When she hears that Spencer has died on the Azores,
Bess decides to sail to find his body and bring him
Creative Cow’s Amanda Knott and a terrific cast
bring out the various elements of this extraordinary
and rarely-performed play, which veers from drunken
humour in the Cornish inn to the high-camp court of a
despotic Middle Eastern ruler, from Spanish duplicity
and torture to a very strange speech by the dying
Spencer about the fidelity of his English mistress.
The audience is bundled from Treasure Island to Dick
Whittington, The Three Musketeers to The White Devil,
all within the exciting space of two hours.
Company founders and regulars Katherine Senior and
Jonathan Parish are the devoted lovers, with Toby
Gaffney doubling as the all-too-human captain Goodlack
and the very able fight director. Steve Bennett,
usually seen in Exeter as one of the country’s very
best pantomime dames, appears here as the bullying
cowardly Roughman, a braggart turned hero by example.
With the rest of the nine-strong cast they produce an
evening of visual and verbal delights, action,
piratical passion and great fun. The show continues
until 10th September.
Rumbustious, Swashbuckling, Romantic Romp."
A-haargh! 'Tis the 41st year in
the Glorious Reign of Good Queen Bess: 'Yes! Tis 1599. Oh
aargh, me hearties!
Pardon me, good reader; just giving you a taste of this
powerful entertainment directed by Amanda Knott who has
gathered as manly a crew of sea-faring, cider-swilling, jolly
songsters and roaring good actors as ever did tread the boards
of ship or stage. And Ms. Knott, she's set 'em on a sure &
certain course to a successful voyage in this tongue-in-cheek,
West Country tale, acted at The New Theatre in Exeter..
"The Fair Maid of the West" by Thomas Heywood,
contains all the ingredients for a rollicking good night that
will satisfy the sensitivities of one & all. It has
comeuppances for ne'er-do-wells, titillating brushes with
illicit sex, but nothing distasteful and duels and massive
sword fights resulting in victory for our English heroes.
Everyone knows how this story will end but watching the
events, sharing the wit and empathising with virtue against
evil, that's the entertainment audiences crave, in 1599 and
The language is easily followed, despite keeping pretty true
to the original, and it is intelligently spoken by all the
cast, to bring out its wealth of humour and drama. And what
makes this production especially lively is the first-rate
musical contribution from composer and performer, Elfyn Jones
(pronounced Elvin) who has arranged several authentic
sea-shanties and has composed two exquisite songs for
Katherine Senior which she sings beautifully. Accompanied by
violinist, Clare Greenall, Mr Jones plays keyboard, lute and
comic effects, adding even greater vitality to a rip-roaring
No painted scenery insults the scope of this play which moves
from an inn at Plymouth to another at Fowey, (pronounced Foy)
in Cornwall, (spelled Kernow, in Cornish). And better than
painted scenes for bringing the play to life in our
imaginations, is a bare stage littered with a lot of beer
barrels of all sizes; huge 54 gallon hogsheads down to
9-gallon pins that these strapping lads wheel about and jump
up upon while singing the lusty sea-shanties; lively
interludes to punctuate episodes in the story.
As a drama, the narrative is thin and the plot implausible but
hey! this is live entertainment and an essentially English
departure from proscriptive Italian commedia that had so
dominated European performance humour during the 15th century.
Heywood's characters are based on real people, capable of
emotional subtleties and personal development, and it was
plays written around this time in English (by Will Shakespeare
& others) and a little later by French authors, that were
helping to drive Dramatic Art forward.
But in 1599 as now, it was most necessary to get bums on seats
& feets on sawdust in the pit where the groundlings stood
cheering or jeering and pelted rotten fruit at the heroes
& villains strutting upon the stage. But always a welcome
attraction was a " maiden, passing fair",
(supposedly played by a boy, but who's to say there weren't
some women performing on stage in those days - why else have a
law against it?)
Even in this excellent ensemble, several actors stand out;
Katherine Senior is The Fair Maid, Bess Bridges, a woman alone
among formidable men, convincingly tender in her affection for
tall & manly Spencer, the worthy, upright hero, perfectly
portrayed by Jonathan Parish. Senior ideally fills the role of
his feminine sweetheart, but is equally convincing as the
Toby Gaffney is Goodlack, a wild-haired, full bearded giant of
enormous stage presence and powerful voice. He is also a
professional stage-fight choreographer whose skill has done
much to enhance this very physical production. And as an
occasional operatic, Gaffney sings magnificently, leading the
many authentic 'tho' not well-known shanties, that feature
through the performance. Yet even this mighty figure doesn't
out-sing or tower over all his fellow actors.
Christopher Barlow stands eye to eye with Gaffney in height
and is extremely funny as the 'camp' but heterosexual Sultan
Mullisheg, who like most men in the play, is smitten with
Bess. But Barlow also shines in three other, widely varied
roles in this romp of a play,.
Familiar to many telly addicts and patrons of Exeter's
Northcott Theatre Christmas Shows over the past decade and a
half, is the brilliant pantomime 'Dame', Steve Bennett. But
here, he enacts 'to the life' the macho role of Roughman.
Superb in his blustering bravado, Bennett's energy is a joy to
watch & his voice, wonderful to hear.
Tom Hackney is an athletic revelation, tumbling rapidly in,
out, over & under everybody and every object during the
sword fights, as he outmanoeuvres his taller opponents. As
Clem, the tavern server, Hackney keeps the humour bubbling
along; a sharp contrast from his recent role in The Dumb
Waiter at the nearby, Bike Shed Theatre.
Nathan Banks, Christopher Talon and Richard Warwick
excellently fill the many supporting roles, in a wide range of
dramatic and comic characterisations. But so too, do the
principal actors who frequently switch bits of costume to play
the multiplicity of 'dramatis personae' that commonly
inundated first Elizabethan cast-lists.
"The Fair Maid of the West" is an education as much
as an entertainment and does the heart good to feel its zest,
its pace and energy. There's beer & wine for purchase on
stage, too. Even fruit juice if you're so inclined. All aboard
before September 10th for a treat of a show.