Falstaff is an ’80s sex god, a vision in gold collars and slashed shirts, serenading the audience with everything from Ian Dury and the Blockheads to Elton John. Punks and hippies drift happily around the set, Home Counties housewives dance around with cakes and trifles, and young men in tank tops try their best to make sense of a mad mad world.
Principal Theatre Company’s decision to stage an ’80s retro version of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ is inspired. It’s an interpretation that scoops up both the frivolity and the anarchy of Shakespeare’s late comedy. The atmosphere is a cross between a village fête that’s spun out of control and a festival: the cast members dart in and out of red, white and blue marquees, while musical acts pepper the farcical plotline. It’s like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ on ecstasy.
Paul Gladwin (also artistic director) looks as if he has been waiting to play Falstaff all his life, strutting the absurd outfits with relish as he presides over the atmosphere of misrule. The plotline is as slim as his waistline is bulky: Mistress Page and Mistress Ford discover they have received identical love letters from Sir John and plot fake seductions to expose and belittle him.
Delightful though this is, the devil is in the details of this ‘Merry Wives’ – whether it’s Denis Michallet’s uptight French doctor singing ‘La Vie En Rose’, Daniel Brennan’s absurdly disguised suspicious husband, Master Ford, or Tom Graysham’s dweebish Master Slender. Minor comedy characters Bardolph, Nym and Pistol (Nathaniel Fairnington, Hannah Cheetham and Darren Latham) are given additional heft as unemployed punk musicians, bringing suitable bite to the prevailing hedonism.
Outdoor productions are often dogged by the hostile British elements, but this production achieved a first as far as this critic is concerned. The cast were in the middle of their rendition of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – ‘Thunderbolt and lightning, very very frightening,’ – when the storm that had been threatening since the interval finally broke. Serendipitous, or proof that artistic director Gladwin has special powers? I’m not going to make a call. Even if it was a one off, it’s well worth packing a hamper and a brolly and heading for the anarchy in Coram’s Fields.
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5 / 5
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tonight tomorrow and Sat last chance to see this terrifically fun and beautifully acted production by Principal as tour ends. Stays true to the play even while shamelessly pillaging 70s pop and being mad as a box of hedgehogs. Oldies bop and clap, kids can't believe their eyes and can safely wander over to Coram Fields' swings and things if their attention dips - as if it would.
This is the second Pricapal Theatre production I have seen and the sheer energy and fun poured into the shows by Paul Gladwin and his cast are rapidly making their touring productions an essential part of my summer. Merry Wives has something for everyone, young and old, so whatever the weather, pack your brolly and your picnic and buy your tickets NOW!