Review: The Fair Maid of the West

Jessica Harris is taken by this RSC production.

Boisterous and exuberant, this adaptation of The Fair Maid of the West is as funny as it is audacious. Isobel McArthur’s modern take on Thomas Heywood’s play retains many elements of the original Elizabethan romp. Set in 1598, England and Spain are at war, Plymouth is over-run with sea captains, and talk in the taverns is of spoils seized from Spanish vessels. At the heart is a strong female hero, and a belief that virtue and true love will win in the end.

Bess is replaced by Liz and, true to the original, she is a feisty woman who seeks to take control of her own destiny. The character of Clem, her plain speaking and loyal servant, is also retained, as is Roughman whom she reforms for the better.

But other characters, plot and language have been radically rewritten to provide a play that speaks to today’s audiences. Spencer becomes something of a new man. Initially, we see him as a fop, with his fine doublet and hose, his dainty heels and buckled shoes. But, having fallen in love with Liz and so at her command, he settles for catching rats in her pub cellar. When he finally emerges, he is all remorse for not having respected her autonomy.

In place of the conspiracy which puts the King and Queen of Fez into each other’s arms instead of those they planned to seduce, McArthur creates a moment of poignancy as the King of Spain declares his love for the Duke de Lerma. Mercifully, it is reciprocated.

The narrator character is a new addition, used to break down the fourth wall, and also to double as Liz’s dead father. The point when she realises she is strong in her own right is powerfully portrayed by her taking over the narration. Other characters are morphed into personalities familiar in pubs of today. There is the appropriately named Windbag, there is Bardolf, full of insecurities and needing a friendly face to talk to, and there is Newspaper Man, who declaims the knowledge he has gleaned from the tabloids.

The pub, in various guises, is the dominant setting. And much like a pub crawl, we are taken from The Dog & Arsehole to The Open Arms and finally to a Spanish taverna, complete with hanging ham hocks. In keeping with pub talk, where commonplace and eloquence freely mix, the dialogue moves from iambic pentameter to blank verse, and back again.

If the humour is at times silly, this is the production’s strength. And time is still found to bring in wider themes, from views of how the English are seen abroad (heavy drinkers and emotionally stifled) to the dangers of being a catholic in the Elizabethan era.

The RSC’s signature style of integrating music throughout is very much present, with performers transforming into singers and musicians at the drop of a tall crown hat. The addition of some Spanish dialogue, fast and furious, is further evidence of the multi-faceted skills of this cast.

Performances are excellent all round: Amber James plays the gutsy Liz and Philip Labey the ardent Spencer. Emmy Stonelake’s portrayal of Clem is raw and passionate, whilst Tom Babbage as Windbag occupies the space of court jester. A barrel of laughs, with more than a measure or two of poignancy, this production of The Fair Maid of the West is worth a trip.

Directed and written by Isobel McArthur and designed by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita, it is on at the RSC until 14th Jan 2024. For further information visit

Pics – Ali Wright.