Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon – until 5 January 2019
The estuary accents, Dolce & Gabbana leggings, bling and selfies are a bit of a giveaway that Fiona Laird’s production of cheeky Shakespearean comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor is geographically dubious. As a ye olde sitcom, its style owes a lot to the old Carry On films.
Ribald, raunchy and brimming with fake tans and dazzling pearlies, Windsor, which opened in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon this week, is a giggle. The humour is rather patchy – it takes a while to get going – but once in its stride its knockabout pratfalls will cause masochistic theatre-goers to erupt into laughter.
Spymonkey’s Toby Park is, no doubt, responsible for putting poor gargantuan babe-magnet, Sir John Falstaff, through the wringer but it is the outstanding double act of Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingly who pull off the deed.
Windsor isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s quite traumatic seeing poor deluded Falstaff (David Troughton, outstanding, brave and game for anything) swathed in a fatsuit, lumbering around Lez Brotherston’s fun set, sweating and hurling himself into one bit of business after another. A lesser actor would collapse with the physical effort of it all, at the end of each show, but the resilient Troughton soldiers on. He deserves a medal.
There’s a telling line in the show when saucy Mistress Page says: “Wives may be merry, yet honest too.” Shakespeare set his comedy in the cosy home counties of Berkshire where a lot of the well-to-do women would have been known to his royal patron at court. But, for no other reason than to get a bigger laugh, Laird has decided to move the action to TOWIE.
So we had Birds Of A Feather, meets the perma-tanned babes from Brentwood, with a line of vintage Dick Emery thrown in and many an ample supporting performance from Katy Brittain’s heaving breasts, which almost deserved their own programme credit.
Laird has wrung every stereotype out of this cast, including a nice but very dim suitor for blonde, pouty and undoubtedly pretty Miss Anne Page (Karen Fishwick) and other who is heroic but seriously myopic.
Vince Leigh, Ford’s insanely jealous hubby, had the obligatory hairband holding back his flowing locks, sculptured beard, a medallion necklace resting on a designer-tanned hair chest and a glitsy doublet, atop his jeans and crested velvet slippers (no socks of course).
His wife was sprayed into leggings and Elizabethan ruff while Mistress Page sported designer Dior – the RSC costume department really excelling themselves for the show.
The plot takes a while to get going but, essentially, Falstaff, dpwn on his uppers, decides to woo both Mistresses Page and Ford in a bid to gain access to their husband’s money.
But the wily blondes suss his less-than-cunning plan and take revenge.
It’s brutally sadistic yet the poor sap falls for their tricks, not once but three times. On occasion a wheelie bin is utilised. Not exactly Shakespearean but the foul smelling waste container caused hilarity throughout the auditorium.
Troughton makes an exceptional Falstaff, wringing the pathos out of every situation while setting himself up for continued abuse.
The supporting thread features a bonkers French doctor (Jonathan Cullen’s Dr Caius) mis-pronouncing his words to create double entendres so ancient that they have grey hairs on them (and extolling the foolishness of Brexit – very 17th century).
And, alongside him, a cartoonish Welsh parson, Sir Hugh Evans (David Acton, adding a bit of improv to his performance), to complete the comedy coupling.
There are moments of laugh-out-loud physicality as the wives take their revenge and the cuckholded husbands plot to unmask their intentions, but the Essex angle feels a little gimmicky and overworked.
Nevertheless, it’s a right royal carry on, and an enjoyable bit of Shakespearean revellery for the summer.
The Merry Wives Of Windsor runs at the RSC until September 22 before transferring to London’s Barbican theatre, running from December 7 – January 5. It will play in cinemas on September 12.