The Merry Wives of Windsor (the musical)
6th December 2017
The Old Court Theatre
Type of Production
Iain Holding Sutton
Author: Katherine Hempstead
Father and daughter directorial duo Peter and Anna Jeary took the perhaps lesser performed Shakespeare comedy (although with some of the most memorable characters and names) and swung it into the sixties in this ‘slimline’ musical jukebox adaptation. Vastly patterned wallpaper, a lovesick girl in a trippy technicolour mini-dress and a lad in a leather jacket with coiffed hair opening the scene set us up for a light-hearted, bawdy romp to carry us through the evening.
The set was era specific – sliding glass door drinks cabinets with pull down cupboards and a beaded curtain masking an exit, but I found the number of entrances a little confusing. I couldn’t place the set of each scene, nor decide which door led to where, but the many entrances did prove handy in enhancing comedic moments when attempting to conceal Falstaff or unexpected visitors, as was often happening. Lighting was designed and operated well by Roger Mannion.. The focal character of Merry Wives and appearing in no less than three other Shakespeare plays is the obnoxious and lecherous Falstaff, performed by stage veteran Dave Hawkes with aplomb. Outrageous costumes (all characters were well turned out, and provided by Bernice Cramphorn, the director and cast) suited his grotesque character, including a particularly fetching luminous green Sergeant Pepper costume. Every euphemism was played for a visual gag with great delivery to receive maximum laughs. Songs were belted out with gusto and passion, even if the passion was not reciprocated by his love interests (or victims). The immaculately presented and feisty Mrs Ford was played by Nikita Eve, who was the image of a perfect wife, (if with a hint of a wandering eye) topped with a beehive, leopard print mini-dress and balanced on high heels. Her singing performance was particularly strong; certainly well matched in ability during the duet with the other ‘Merry Wife’ Mrs Page played by Rachel Curren in their performance of Aretha Franklin’s Respect. Mrs Ford was well matched with her mistrustful Mr Ford played with conviction by Tom Tull. His double act as Mr Brook led to a delectably ridiculous disguise, in a scheme to undo his wife whilst in cahoots with the unknowing Falstaff. His powerful rendition of Delilah, closing the first half, required no microphone – his vocal ability carried him through and beyond the modest auditorium. Sarah Bell played the dry-humoured and brazen Mrs. Quickly, who acquired the position of cleaner and housekeeper. Appearing to orchestrate the action on-stage, complete with fag hanging from her lip whilst completing her chores, she provided the reflective class difference and a reassured performance with ease.
Mr and Mrs Page played by Simon Hirst and Rachel Curren made a sound, reassuring couple, believable in their on-stage marriage sharing their concern and interference in marrying off their daughter Anne Page, played by the fresh-faced Charlotte Norburn. Having already set her sights on her leather jacket-clad rebel Fenton, played by James Fletcher, she appeared less than impressed with her suitors presented to her. Given the choice of Slender, a slightly slack-jawed Brummie complete with hang-dog expression, played for laughs by Alexander Bloom, or Doctor Caius, the Frenchest man I have seen perform since the cast of ‘Ello ‘Ello, topped with beret and cigarette holder, played by Bruce Thomson, I know who I would have chosen given the circumstances too. I did lose some of the dialogue from Slender – I imagine it is a challenge to tackle complex Shakespeare prose with a thick Brummie accent – yet he held his character well. Doctor Caius was a riot – a chaotic, typically enraged flamboyant scene stealer of a character. Parson Evans played by David Johnson provided a voice of reason amidst the larger character performances, as did Jacquie Newman taking the servant position, and ably singing with the ensemble pieces to make them more harmonised numbers. It took a song or two to pick up the rhythm of the production – a microphone on a stand was provided each side of the stage for characters to use when necessary – but the theme of the scene and songs were blended together nicely, with some top quality live music enhanced with live looping (thanks to the useful programme notes) provided by the single musician Nick Mayes, assisted by sound technician Keith Newman. The guitar could possibly have been made more visible to the audience as part of the overall performance. It would also have been a nice addition to have song credits printed with the performer’s names in the programme. The background images within the programme also came out maybe a little darker than expected.
The directors played the production for plenty of laughs, ensuring Shakespeare is accessible to be enjoyed by all, and kept to his original intentions of good humour and farcical comedy. Overall, I felt all performers were at ease in their roles and with each-other. Characters and relationships were well developed, with some wonderful clashes and laugh-out-loud moments – one that sticks in mind is the final scene in the forest with Falstaff to the music of timeless Jonny Cash, and also the usually drawn out ‘big reveal’ condensed into a simple re-enactment with Bert Kaempfert’s Swinging Safari as the backing music. I certainly left the auditorium with that tune in my head all night.