’The Highwayman’ by Alfred Noyes is widely regarded as a classic poem; a love story between a mysterious highwayman and Bess, the innkeeper’s daughter, who are betrayed by stableboy Tim through jealousy. Motley Crew’s retelling attempts to bring their own uniqueness to proceedings with a LGBTQIA+ narrative (perfectly fine) and a rather ‘Hollywood’ ending (arguably not so fine: we don’t always need happily-ever-afters).
The LGBTQIA+ element is that the highwayman is female, and it won’t be giving too much away to also tell you it is Anna (Laura May Price). In rather Hong Kong Phooey style (look it up kids), she is by day a humble maid, but by night the mysterious and deadly highwayman, robbing unsuspecting travellers and enjoying late night embraces with Bess (Emily Millwood). This brings recognition that in the 18th century two females in such a relationship would have been scandalous and kept hidden, thus adding an additional layer of secrecy to the highwayman’s identity. It’s nicely touched upon as Anna and Bess discuss leaving to set up a new life elsewhere, with knowing nods to how they would continue to keep their relationship hidden from prying eyes.
Making up the four-strong cast are Andrew Houghton as stableboy Tim and Dean McCullough as Captain. McCullough brings a wonderfully dislikeable air of arrogance and misogyny to his role, and Tim is clearly in awe of him. If anything, this is a missed opportunity to bring in a more daring love interest. Instead, we see Tim change from quiet stableboy to conniving manipulator as he attempts to blackmail Bess into marriage. If there is any issue with the characters and their development, it is in Tim. He begins the play as too much of a bumbling simpleton and so his sudden change – even with the influence of Captain – into someone who could plan something so cunning feels slightly awry.
Issues of character development aside, August Iago’s script flows lyrically, taking much from the original poem in style and content. But whilst the first half feels loyal to its source, returning after the interval clear liberties are taken, as the story begins to drastically diverge. It is in this divergence that perhaps those loyal to the original may take issue, as Iago’s reworked ending is much more ‘Hollywood’. Then again, maybe the rewrite offers a welcome surprise, especially when you are waiting for the original poem’s more heart-breaking conclusions?
With a cast of just four and the usual budget limitations, there is much to love about the creativity in this production. Luke Vella’s sound design – all eerie winds, whining horses and chattering guardsman – creates a soundscape that takes you into a wider world than we ever actually see. Xena Saffrom’s costumes are simple yet effective, especially in allowing Anna to quickly switch from maid to highwayman, whilst Ethan Olswang’s set design and Ryan Dunnett’s lighting innovatively create clearly distinct spaces from just the few props at hand.
The Highwayman is an enjoyable romp that puts a wonderful new perspective on the classic poem. Your opinion may ultimately rest on whether you can overlook certain changes being introduced or not. But what cannot be in doubt is that it is yet another success for The Space in bringing new and interesting talent to the stage.
(This review of The Highwayman was carried out via the livestream and not in person.)
Written by: August Iago
Directed and produced by: Hannah Lindstedt
Lighting Design and Livestream by: Ryan Dunnett
Set Design by: Ethan Olswang
Costume Design by: Xena Saffrom
Sound Design by: Luke Vella
The HIghwayman has completed its current run, but is available on-demand until 12 February, via the below link.