The Guardian

It 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.

With 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 hedonistic sauciness.

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 for women.

Whats On Stage

Amanda 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 Francis Drake.

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 master).

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 pullers.

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 production. Enjoy!


Blackmore Vale Magazine

ELIZABETHAN playwright Thomas Heywood is said to have written more than 200 plays, only a handful of which survive.

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 production.

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 home.

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. 


Remote Goat

"Rollicking, 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 now, too.

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 show.

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 swashbuckling heroine.

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.


Some audience reviews: