LONDON DAILY NEWS 6.4.87 Giles Gordon
The Swan Theatre in Stratford is a vertical house: the
Mermaid a horizontal one. Nothing daunted, designer John Napier
has superbly adapted his set for Thomas Heywood's The Fair Maid
of the West.
The London theatre is rigged out with lanterns, ladders and
ropes and serves first as the Plymouth Tavern wherein our
heroine Bess Bridges (Imelda Staunton) meets Captain Goodlack
(Paul Greenwood) and falls in love with his friend Spencer (Sean
It works equally well as the pirate ship which Bess, by then
in breeches, captains. Bess and her crew, including cowardly
Roughman (Pete Postlethwaite, a roaring performance) are
searching for Spencer's body.
The set, I suspect, comes closer in atmosphere to the
Elizabethan playhouse than anything previously achieved and
everybody has a wonderful time at Trevor Nunn's endlessly
Nunn has combined two plays, Fair Maid One (1591) and Fair
Maid Two (1630). They are, really, a load of baloney. Heywood
was a journeyman hack, but the original picaresque comedy was so
successful that, years later, he was urged to provide a sequel.
The first play is a swashbuckling adventure story with terrific
fights and never a dull minute.
The second play is nearer to farce. Joe Melia (wearing an
outfit resembling a tub of Turkish Delight) presides as King
Mullisheg of Fez to whom, in captivity, Bess and her crew are
brought. He takes her for the Queen of England and becomes
enthralled by her. For my taste, things become a bit camp in
the second half, but Spencer resurfaces and all ends jollily.
There are some rousing songs, closer to Lloyd Webber than the
bitter-sweet ballads that might be more appropriate. The
ensemble acting is satisfyingly rich. Staunton's Bess is
definitely a girl of gold.
CITY LIMITS 9.4.87 Carole Waddis
For an object lesson in how to turn dry academia into
rollicking good fun, you could do no better than draw anchor and
set sail for Trevor Nunn's smoke-billowing, swash-buckling,
wind-nudging update of Thomas Heywood's Elizabethan pot-boiler.
Nunn certainly has the common touch in this warm-hearted tale of
daring-do and virtue rewarded. Boasting a pint-sized heroine of
giant-size stature in Imelda Staunton's Bess Bridges, the maid
who sets off on the high seas in search of her one true love
(pause for quick melodic lurch into a woman born in England, a
hymn to the English female's love of freedom, virtue and one
true man), "Fair Maid" bears all the hall-marks for which the
RSC is justly fabled; virtuoso ensemble work; a musical backdrop
embracing homage to the traditional and flirtations with the
contemporary; imagination and flair. Feminists may note with
interest how the plot reflects a full-blooded re-statement of
that hallowed moral tenet, the primacy of woman's chastity,
whilst extolling the Christian male's profound capacity for
honour (his word is his bound, etc.). The play also exudes a
rampant xenophobia that, despite Nunn's best endeavours to
undercut it, would make a Lt. Commander of the Falklands Armada
blush in embarassment. But then, it's always good to be
reminded where our atavistic colonial urges came from.
FINANCIAL TIMES 3.4.87 Martin Hoyle
A play toward; The auditors are actors too, perhaps, if they
see cause... After a couple of trial Shakespearian openings, the
company is swamped by demands for the tale of Bess Bridges; and
Heywood's rollick-hokum is under way, part improvised, audibly
prompted and urged on with raucous participation from the
Jacobean groundlings who swarm around the auditorium.
Trevor Nunn's cunning conflation of two plays comes from the
Royal Shakespeare Company's new Swan Theatre at Stratford. It
launches the company's fresh tenure of the Mermaid in
Blackfriars, overseen by Frank and Woji Gero, the loyal American
RSC fans whose faith is justified by the enjoyable fun of this
warm-hearted and good-humoured frolic.
The Mermaid presents a passable simulacrum of the Swan's
acting space: a low thrust stage, seats on three sides; steps
and walkways along the side walls, a balcony above the stage -
all in the wood, light in colour and texture, that recalls the
The picaresque, derring-do of the doughty barmaid-turned-
privateer, scourge of the Spaniards and a captive in Barbary, is
the stuff of Saturday-morning cinema serials (remember them?).
Bess initially dons male garb to impersonate her brother (the
practical rather than romantic aspect of her transvestism smacks
more of Szechwan than Arden), believes her beloved dead, meets
and loses him in the course of their adventures, and emerges
from a welter of selfless renunciation for a happy ending
presided over by noble paynims, forerunners of those dignified
Turks the eighteenth century would become so fond of.
Mr. Nunn's production has its quota of tricks. It lays some
jokes on with a trowel, overdoes the ruefully quizzical shrug to
the audience, and throws in some very un-seicento songs - the
final one when we learn that Bess refused to let the king of
Morroca shock'r is decidedly too much. The plot's tenuous
thread is almost lost in the last rambling 20 minutes or so, and
many of the coarse theatre jokes are familiar from time
immemorial - well, from the Dream's base mechanicals at least,
up to the RSC's own Nickleby and the commercial theatre's Noises
Yet the cheerful romp works. As the Pearl White of the
Spanish Main, Imelda Staunton is fiery, bucolic, passionate and
serupulously, heart-rendingly, serious in moments of grief. I
have reservations about the Barbara Dickson-type song, "A woman
alone" but about this generous performance there can be none.
(And en travesti she looks perfect casting for Fielding's Tom
Thumb the Great.)
Sean Bean, the long-lost hero, looks firm-jawed and clean-
limbed; as the lecherous king of Fez Joe Melia is slack-jawed
and dirty-limbed (metaphorically). Pete Postlethwaite's
disconcerted bully, a mixture of swagger and dismayed caution,
won the house. Nifty sword-play (Malcolm Ranson), high spirits
everywhere; and my heart goes out to Donald McBride's Devon-
accented potboy, lumbered with the worst of the puns. A few
friendly groands from the groundlings might not come amiss.
LONDON EVENING STANDARD 3.4.87 MILTON SHULMAN
Of the 220 plays churned out by Thomas Heywood, only one of
them - a woman killed by kindness written in 1603 - is deemed to
have survived the depredations of time. In other words, he was
a dramatic hack.
In its newest role as a grave robber of dead Elizabethan and
Jacobean works, the Royal Shakespeare Company have dug up "The
Fair Maid of the West" by Heywood and, with Trevor Nunn's
expertise as a director of stage spectaculars, has turned it
into an amusing evening at the Mermaid.
I suppose 300 years from now similar groups will be reviving
early episodes of Coronation Street to discern what they might
tell us of English life in the 1960's and, in that narrow sense,
Heywood does offer some evidence of the morals and values of his
But whatever academic interest such a disinterment might have
had has been largely nullified by Trevor Nunn's conversion of
this popular adventure story into a Christmas pantomime for
It is a tale of undying love, relentless virtue, flashing
swordplay and English moral superiority. Although Captain
Spencer has better breeding than Bess Bridges, a serving wench
in a Plymouth tavern, he pledges his devotion to her when he is
forced to flee the country because he has killed a man in a
His class sensitivity is evident when he gives her money, a
house and an inn in return for her constancy but asks a friend
to check that she has done nothing immodest in his absence.
When Spencer is reported killed in the Azores, Bess is so
grief-stricken that she fits out her own ship, dresses up as a
sea captain and sails off to collect her lover's body and bring
it back to England.
Surviving a dozen sword fights, a near rape by a bandit chief
and attempts by the King of Fez to bed her, Bess is reunited
with her not-dead lover for a preposterous happy ending. And
would you believe it, the girl is only 17.
Imelda Staunton, as Bess, displays fiery integrity
maintaining her virginity in the face of onslaughts that would
have undermined an entire convent.
Joe Melia, as a lecherous Moorish King, restores the art of
the double-take to its rightful place in this sort of pantomime
while Sean Bean, as Spencer, slaughters villains with acrobatic
agility to prove that Englishmen will always win just in the
nick of time.
INDEPENDENT 4.4.87 ANDREW RISSIK
Trevor Nunn's inaugural production for the RSC at the
refurbished Mermaid Theatre is a delightful piece of Elizabethan
pantomime, Thomas Heywood's robust romantic adventure "The Fair
Maid of the West". One of the curiosities of dramatic criticism
is that the period which bears Shakespeare's name offers us so
little of value which is like him. Marlow, Jonson, Marston,
Webster and Ford were highly strung intellectuals with
imaginations steeped in discordant poetry and mordant satire.
Shakespeare was temperamentally an old-fashioned, middle-class
romancer, and Heywood is what he might have been had he lacked
"The Fair Maid of the West" is written in vivacious doggerel
rhythms and its plot is the kind of fairy-tale farrago which
Shakespeare mocks in "A Comedy of Errors" and revives years
later in "Pericles". In it the honest and boisterous Bess
Bridges keeps a tavern, chastely loves a well-spoken gallant,
loses him, believes him dead, takes to the seas to recover his
body, and is finally reunited with him in an ending of throaty
happiness. Nunn combines the play with its 1630 sequel, and
sets it racing at breakneck speed across the clean-timbered
cockpit of the Mermaid.
Imelda Staunton plays the sturdy, emotional and uncomplicated
Bess with operetta lightness and vaudeville bravura. When
upbraiding or encouraging her rowdy male comrades, she has a
voice that would breach the walls of Harfleur; in the absurdly
heartfelt love scenes she melts into an exquisite pantomime
gentleness. Her Bess is a cross between Barbara Windsor and a
Gilbert & Sullivan heroine: shrewd, bawdy and innocent.
Only Pete Postlethwaite as a swaggering knave called Rough
Man gives off the same larking vitality and knock-about fun.
Postlethwaite has some of Frankie Howerd's shambling appetite
for mischief and outrage, and he makes this potentially tedious
stereotype into a lewdly comic charlatan from whom life always
demands fresh resources of guile. These two give the show its
centre and save it from being mere costumed high spirits.
Nunn's production knows that Heywood was one of the most
sanguine and down-to-earth of Shakespeare's contemporaries, a
good comic actor who wrote very prosaic verse. He follows
Heywood's phlegmatic advice that "actors should be men pick'd
out personable, according to the parts they present" in giving
us a host of sharply delineated supporting performances.
But there are moments of simple, quiescent beauty in
Heywood's writing which this hell-for-leather staging never
really catches. We hear it distantly when Sean Bean's gallant
Spencer muses: "at the same time that one lies tortured upon the
rack, another lies tumbling with his mistress over head and ears
in down and feathers", and it is the achievement of "A Woman
Killed with Kindness". Heywood was delighted by the super-
abundance of life, and he prized its mild, workaday
contentments. Nunn gives us the hectic festivity of his work,
but too little of its repose.
GUARDIAN 4.4.87 MICHAEL BILLINGTON
"What company is in the Mermaid?" enquires the Plymouth
barmaid, Bess Bridges, in Thomas Heywood's The Fair Maid of the
West. The short answer is the Royal Shakespeare Company who
have found a London counterpart for Stratford's Swan. The old
space has been transformed with a galleried apron stage that
thrusts out into the auditorium: the effect is at once intimate,
challenging and oddly nautical which suits well with Heywood's
There could hardly be a happier introduction to the Swan
repertory than Trevor Nunn's joyously inventive production of
Heywood's two-part crowd-pleaser. A work of scant literary
merit but enormous good nature, it follows the adventures of
Bess Bridges journeying to the Azores to redeem the body of her
lover (presumed dead), turning up at the court of Mullisheg,
king of Fez, where she is re-united with her lost beau and then
discovering - as they seek to make their escape - that he puts
his pledge of faith to a friendly Bashaw before his love for his
Sequels are rarely as good as the original: and the second
part, written anything up to 30 years after the first, is less
successful in that it transforms Bess from a buccaneering
protagonist into a shipwrecked victim. But Nunn's production
succeeds in unifying the two halves by treating them as an
instant course (at times almost an assault-course) in popular
theatre. We have fights in the aisles, swinging from the
rigging, chases through the house. But, as at Stratford, the
best moment is the simplest: that is when ropes are tethered to
the rails around the stage, a canvas sheet becomes a sail and
trestle-tables transform the stage into a multi-levelled ship's
deck. Not since Orson Welle's Moby Dick have we been so
persuasively made to feel afloat.
Imelda Staunton, as a tavern-girl suddenly thrust into
recreating the popular role of Bess, lends the itinerant barmaid
the weight of true feeling; she also has the gift of switching
from seriousness to irony with the flick of an eyebrow. And
there is excellent support from Peter Postlethwaite as a
reformed braggart, Sean Bean as the constantly mislaid lover,
Tony Armatrading as the honourable Bashaw and Simon Russell
Beale as a nervous prompter quivering with panic at suddenly
finding himself onstage. Just occasionally, in the second half,
the cast play the house rather than the narrative. But the
evening, as a whole, is irresistible; and, for the first time
since the 17th-century, Heywood's comedy should succeed in
drawing the town.
TIME OUT 8.4.87 Helen Rose
Thomas Heywood's two adventure plays "The Fair Maid of the
West" (parts 1 & 2), here condensed by director Trevor Nunn into
one exuberent epic, charts the fortunes of Plymouth barmaid Bess
Bridges from serving wench to Queen of the pirate seas. A small
but energetic cast, led by Imelda Staunton's captivating Bess,
embark on swashbuckling high-seas adventures in search of her
lost lover's grave. They defeat the Spanish but are captured by
Moroccans; they find Bess's sweetheart Spencer but as quickly
lose him again; they charm and cheat the King of Fez and finally
join in love. This is a rumbustious, rollicking romp with nifty
swordfights (Malcolm Ranson), rousing songs, and infectiously
ironic acting. Imelda Staunton is a charming, disarming and
quite delightful Bess whose candour and bravery, sweetness and
fortitude conquer all hearts and win all battles. Peter
Postlethwaite's endearing bully Roughman and Joe Melia's King
stand out in this excellent ensemble. An imaginative and witty
production with the innocence and charm of a pantomime - great
JEWISH CHRONICLE 10.4.87 DAVID NATHAN
There's more fun, though at the Mermaid which rips into
action as the RSC's third London home with Trevor Nunn's version
of Thomas Heywood's "The Fair Maid of the West" in which Imelda
Staunton plays an English barmaid of impressive virtue who turns
pirate and scourges the Spaniards in revenge for her lover's
The theatre explodes with swordfights, gun-fights, laughter
and high spirits and I doubt if anyone will leave it without a
smile on their face and gratitude in their heart.
Pete Postlethwaite's craven villain redeemed by her goodness
DAILY MIRROR 7 4 87 DAVID NATHAN
The most rip-roaring show in London is an up-date of a 500-
year-old frolic in which is 16-year-old barmaid keeps her virtue
intact against the assaults of bar-room brawlers and a Moroccan
king who wants her for his harem.
The Fair Maid of the West, written by Tom Heywood in about
1600 and now re-written by director Trevor Nunn, bustles into
the Mermaid - the Royal Shakespeare Company's newest (and third)
London home - and explodes all over the theatre with sword
fights, gun fights and laughter.
Tiny Imelda Staunton plays barmaid Bess, whose virtue
transforms every villain she meets into a hero while she scours
the world for her lover.
They meet and part like cable cars crossing chasms, but all
ends well on a note to the effect that one English girl can tame
the whole wicked world if she puts her mind to it.
MAIL on SUNDAY 5.4.87 KENNETH HURREN
Best of the transferred trio is Thomas Heywood's "Fair Maid
of the West", marking the RSC's takeover of the Mermaid -
restructured in Jacobean style to accommodate the plays from
Trevor Nunn's gloriously boisterous production moves through
the rollicking melodrama and its lusty jingoism with madcap
velocity and with splendid send-up performances, especially from
Imelda Staunton as the Plymouth barmaid seeking her lost lover
on the Spanish Main, and Joe Melia as a panto King of Morocco.
TABLET 2.4.87 DELLA COULING
Stratford's Swan Theatre production of Thomas Heywood's "The
Fair Maid of the West", directed by Trevor Nunn, has now come to
the Mermaid Theatre in London. Nunn has conflated the two parts
of Heywood's play (written around 1599 and 1630 respectively),
to provide a jolly evening's entertainment with some flavour of
the original. The actors enter the apron stage well before the
start of the performance, serve beer to the audience, chat and
finally have a discussion on which play to perform.
This tale of a virtuous Plymouth barmaid who adopts male
attire to seek out her missing lover at sea is great fun, and it
was a brilliant stroke to cast the very diminutive Imelda
Staunton as Bess, the Fair Maid. The slapstick is perhaps
overdone at times, but it is a polished and entertaining
performance, greatly enjoyed by the audience.
THE FAIR MAID OF THE WEST
Giles Gordon at the Swan Theatre, Stratford
Plays and Players, December 1986
Trevor Nunn is back directing at Stratford, and not before
time. His restlessly inventive, energetic production of Thomas
Heywood's "The Fair Maid of the West" is a riot of fun. It
would be a solemn person who didn't succumb to the happy
atmosphere. With his first production at The Swan (and his new
theatre's fourth and final one of its memorable first season),
Mr. Nunn seems completely to have mastered the space and
realised its potential. The action takes place on the apron
stage, above it and all over the theatre, drawing the audience
Heywood, contemporary of Shakespeare, was a journeyman
scriptwriter who today might be writing television soap opera.
He's strong on plots and clearly delineated characters. His
plays are no great shakes as 'art' yet it is precisely to
discover how such popular Elizabethan and Jacobean texts work
for audiences today that Nunn was determined to create The Swan.
The paradox of this particular production is that the play -
actually two, "Fair Maid One", thought to have been written in
1599 when Heywood was about 25, "Fair Maid Two" in 1630 - comes
across as brilliant theatre. Nunn has conflated the two plays,
cutting out most of the dead wood, especially in the less
Designer John Napier has filled the stage with tables and
benches. The evening starts in a Plymouth inn where our
heroine, Bess Bridges (Heywood's homage, in middle class terms,
to the Virgin Queen), is everybody's favourite chaste barmaid
and all the blades fight for her favours. Malcolm Ranson's
spoof fights are breathtaking, so close is the audience.
The subsequent action roams around Devon and Cornwall, often
in taverns, then we take to the waves and are aboard both
Spanish and English vessels before, in the end, arriving at the
crazy court of Morocco where King Mullisheg (Joe Melia)
presides, in cahoots with two bashaws: Togo Igawa, managing to
be inscrutable and ferocious simultaneously, gives an especially
funny performance. (At the risk of being accused of elitism or
racism, this is the first RSC production I have seen where
multi-racial casting is justified in artistic terms).
Ladders stand around and ropes hang down. One actor suddenly
slides from the top of the theatre to the floor. Mr. Napier
achieves much of his effect, both of seaport tavern and of ship,
by hanging lanterns from the roof, a device not dissimilar to
that he employed to illuminate "The Mysteries" at the Cottesloe.
(It's hard to think of a theatre in London where this production
could be reproduced to such effect.)
Imelda Staunton is Bess, and makes much of the part by
essaying it straight. She's a brave, decent gal and it seems
entirely right that, at the end of the play, she and her beloved
Spencer (Sean Bean) whom she'd believed killed in a duel and
whose body she's gone in search of, should be reunited. Ms.
Staunton sings ballads notably well too, in what might be
described as the Barbara Dickson way. The other memorable
performance is Pete Postlethwaite's as Roughman, a terrible
coward who is mastered - literally, nearly, as she's wearing
britches, pretending to be her non-existent brother - by Bess.
Conquered, Roughman becomes her lap-dog-like follower and more
daring than anyone else.
Most of the cast double or triple to energetic effect. Paul
Greenwood is effective as Spencer's friend, Goodlack, and Donald
McBride is inventive and comic as Clem. Poor Joe Melia looks
less as if he wished he were in a different play than that he
is. I always find Mr. Melia's acting in non-contemporary work a
problem because he has such a powerful personality which easily
unbalances the scenes he's in. The problem here is compounded
because the zany King Mullisheg and the action at his court are
unlike anything else in the play. The scenes featuring Mr.
Melia are like a variety show slapped on to the end of Heywood's
October 1, 1986
By Giles Gordon
Trevor Nunn has returned to Stratford to direct the fourth and final play in his handsome "Swan's" triumphant first season. His production of Shakespeare's journeyman playwright contemporary, Thomas Heywood's "The Fair Maid of the West" establishes the theatre as the most exciting new space in years.
Heywood wrote a sequel to the original "Fair Maid". The first play, from internal political references, was probably written about 1599. "Fair Maid Two" was put on the boards thirty years later. The first script (Heywood today would, most likely, write good-natured soap opera) is the pleasing tale of Bess Bridges, Plymouth barmaid of integrity, and of her adventures: Joan Littlewood might have devised the scenario, and the rumbustious performances Mr Nunn manages to elicit from his energetic cast.
In "Fair Maid Two", Bess in britches goes on a sea voyage and ends up
reunited with her lover, Spencer (Sean Bean), whom she'd believed killed in a duel years before. They meet up, improbably, at the court of King Mullisheg of Morocco (Joe Melia). The sequel is worthy, moralistic and absurd, in keeping with an England where the Puritans were about to close down the theatres; and Heywood was no longer a young man.
Mr Nunn has conflated the two plays, retaining much of the first, thus
allowing the motley characters to establish and assert themselves. Pete Postlethwaite gives a terrific performance as the coward-become-hero, Roughman, first bettered by Bess in drag, posing as her non-existent brother. Imelda Staunton plays Bess fairly straight, and all the better for that. The character is Heywood's middle-class homage to his adored Virgin Queen. Part Two becomes almost The Mullisheg Show with Mr Melia camping it up in his inimitable, terribly intelligent way. His stooge is the fulminating and inscrutable Togo Igawa as Bashaw Alcade, a close relative of Cato in The Pink Panther.I've rarely sat in a theatre where the audience has had such a good time. The show (and it is that, rather than simply a revival of two rarities) could be as successful as "Nicholas Nickleby". John Napier's set - embracing taverns, ships, the Azores and Morocco, with lanterns hanging from the roof - contributes
richly to the atmosphere. There are songs of the sweet ballad sort, and cod-swashbuckling fights choreographed by the ever-inventive Malcolm Ranson. Every level of the Swan Theatre is used - an elderly actor even hurtles from top to bottom on a swinging rope.
There is a cannon, that is meant to fire twice. At the first preview it failed twice and thus received the evening's loudest laugh. I hope Mr Nunn has kept that in. He, shrewd in these matters, is no doubt right to present the plays substantially as a jape, the Elizabethan equivalent of a "Carry On" film.
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