Sunday, 13 January 2013

Fair Em - review

Written by: Jess Nesling (@JessNes1)

Union Theatre, London

Any play linked to Shakespeare is bound to spark one’s intrigue. As award-winning director Phil Willmott is no stranger to the Bard, and in particular finds charm in his lesser produced plays, one can understand the attraction to Fair Em - part of the Shakespeare Apocrypha. Yet even with Willmott’s Midas touch, the reasons why this play has been left untouched for over 400 years quickly become apparent.

Photo: Scott Rylander
The plot intertwines two tales, whose lack of complexity and obvious nature highlight doubt over authorship. Sir Thomas Goddard (James Horne) and his daughter Em (the beautiful Caroline Haines) are forced to flee – the former with comic reluctance - and live in disguise as a poor miller and his daughter. Em’s unconcealable beauty attracts local courters and she goes to extreme lengths to fend off the unwanted attention. Concurrently, William the Conqueror (Jack Taylor) sees the image of the Danish princess, Blanch (Madeline Gould), emblazoned on a shield and immediately falls in love with her. He crosses the seas in disguise to woo her, but is horrified to find that the picture serves no resemblance to the ungainly princess. His attention is instead drawn to Swedish princess Mariana (Alys Metcalf), who is a slave of the King of Denmark (Gordon Winter) and already betrothed to the Marquis of Lubeck (the striking and talented Tom Gordon-Gill).

The small yet charismatic Union Theatre provides the perfect environment for this unpretentious fringe production. Designer Philip Lindley reflects the mood of the era but not of the play with a beautiful black and white-etched backdrop of old London along the Thames. Anna Sorensen Sargent’s pantomime-esque costume contrasts strongly, yet it is more in tune with the farcical action. The obvious white stickers on Blanch’s shoes could have been avoided, however.

The chorus Green Willow sometimes drives the plot forward with cheeky tunes that point towards the light-hearted nature of the play. At other times, however, off-key harmonies and loud drumming detract from the performance. Oliver Healey’s stunning guitar-playing is a highlight. The standard of acting is inconsistent among the cast, though. Some, such as Jack Taylor, Madeline Gould (despite the ever-changing accent), Caroline Haines and Robert Donald are superb and utterly watchable. Others fail to impress and make one question whether a first class degree equates a first class actor.

Photo: Scott Rylander
There are many high points to this play, especially the farcical song of Em’s three admirers; Mountney (Tom McCarron), Valingford (Robert Welling) and Manville (David Ellis), who compete to leave love tokens, along with Blanch’s final love speech.

Willmott states in the foreword that the incorrect attribution to Shakespeare “is probably the reason why you’re here and it’s certainly the reason that I picked it up and started reading.”  But compare anything to Shakespeare’s complex and successful works and it will surely crumble. Instead, take this play in its own right and regard it as an enjoyable, albeit flawed, piece of comedy.

This production runs until 9th February 2013. 
@TheUnionTheatre @FairEm1 

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