Sunday 20 January 2013

Theatre review: Fair Em

Director Phil Willmott has made a bit of an annual tradition of reviving Shakespearean obscurities at the Union Theatre, with the dubious Double Falsehood and the largely neglected King John in past years. I would have thought there were enough relatively unpopular Shakespeare plays left in the canon (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Titus Andronicus, The Two Noble Kinsmen, the Henry VIs) to keep him busy for a while yet before having to dip into the Apocrypha - the collection of anonymously-authored plays falsely attributed to Shakespeare around the time of the Restoration. But that's what he's done this year with the "modern world premiere" of Fair Em, a charmless romantic comedy where the funniest joke is the suggestion that anyone could have ever actually thought Shakespeare wrote it.

A rather sleazy William the Conqueror (Jack Taylor,) smitten by the portrait of a Danish princess, goes to Denmark in disguise to seek her as his queen. But the painting turns out to have been somewhat flattering and although the real Blanch (Madeline Gould) falls for him, William himself is less keen. He much prefers Mariana (Alys Metcalf,) but she in turn is in love with Lubeck (Tom Gordon-Gill) and devises a plan to get the king off her back and into Blanch's arms.

Back in England, a separate plot sees a nobleman hide from the new king by disguising himself as a miller, along with his daughter, the titular Em (Caroline Haines.) She has three suitors, but her tricks designed to get rid of the two unwanted ones actually end up showing her favourite's true colours.

It's not hard to see why Fair Em has languished for so long, as the plot's back-and-forths should make for an entertaining bit of harmless fun but the execution struggles to hold the interest. Willmott's made some adaptations for performance but the results are muddled: A chorus of musicians crop up at random moments singing in a variety of styles, sometimes that of a traditional English country song, sometimes deliberately anachronistic. And to make up for a lack of zippy lines in the script the actors adopt an OTT performance style that veers constantly into ham. The end result resembles nothing so much as a panto that's forgotten to put any jokes in (an impression not helped by the men in tights, or Gordon Winter's King of Denmark BEING STUCK ON CAPSLOCK FOR HIS WHOLE PERFORMANCE.) At least the leading ladies, Metcalf and Haines, come out of things relatively unscathed and give likeable performances.

If the show had sold itself as a sort of classical panto it might not be so tempting to be harsh on it, but the publicity wants to have its cake and eat it, cashing in by constantly invoking Shakespeare's name in big letters then quickly pointing out that there's no reason to associate him with Fair Em, then suggesting there might be some sort of debate on the issue. Even the set gets in on the act - despite the costumes having been kept mediaeval and all the action set in either Denmark or rural England, Phil Lindley's backdrop evokes Elizabethan London with the Globe in prominent position. But the play can't live up to that kind of hype, and this time Willmott's turd-polishing abilities have abandoned him.

Fair Em by author(s) unknown, adapted by Phil Willmott, is booking until the 9th of February at the Union Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

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