Love comes in many shapes and forms, though rarely so large as Sir John Falstaff played by David Troughton in a sauna of a fat suit, wooing the lovely . . . and rich Mistress Ford, played by Veth Cordingy, by her pool. Pictures: Manuel Harlan

The Merry Wives of Windsor

The Royal Shakespeare Company



Every so often along comes a production that is so good that all a review really needs to say is don’t bother reading on, just grab a ticket and go and see it. Whether you like Shakespeare or not matters not a jot; this is simply brilliant theatre and wonderful comedy.

It is laugh out loud funny, risqué and although it is some time since I last saw the play, and memory is not what it was, I do not recollect Shakespeare mentioning Brexit, or golf – complete with a radio controlled golf trolley - for that matter and I am sure I would have remembered had the rev Sir Hugh Evans, here splendidly Welsh under the calling of David Acton, led the audience in a chorus of Guide Me Oh Thou Great Redeemer – surely my mind is not that enfeebled - but that has not stopped director Fiona Laird lobbing them in for fun, and what fun is had by all.

All right the Shakespeare purists might have an attack of the vapours but it is perhaps more in keeping with the bard than a strict following of the folios, after all Shakespeare’s comedies staged at The Globe were bawdy affairs with the audience involved, and heckling, and performances were full of contemporary asides - and that is what you have got here, with a duel and wheelie bin thrown in, literally in Sir John Falstaff’s case, for good measure . . . for measure (sorry, couldn’t resist that).


Paul Dodds as George Page, Tim Samuels as Shallow and Katy Brittain as the Hostess

There is more a hint of Essex about the accents than Berkshire and perhaps a nod to One Man, Two Gov’nors might be detected here and there in this clever reworking, and for those who hate modern dress there are plenty of doublets, pantaloons, bodices and ruffs to go round, while for those who like a contemporary feel we have jeans, skinny trousers, suits and high heels all thanks to the brilliant Lez Brotherston’s dazzling design.

Brotherston is a long-time collaborator with Sir Matthew Bourne and his masterful designs are always inventive, never dull or run of the mill. Here he gives us two skeletal LED beamed Tudor cottages, one with a residents parking only sign, which revolve to serve as houses of the main characters as well as the office of Sir John Falstaff, or The Garter Inn as it is more commonly known.

The costumes are a mix of old and new as if the cast have been kitted out, in dim lighting, at a  wardrobe department clear-out. Thus we have characters in doublet and jeans or ruff and suits, bodice and kilt, and all manner of items 400 or so years apart in a glorious melange of fashion where nothing looks quite right . . . nor quite wrong.

The tale is simple, the telling perhaps less so, with three suitors after the hand of the quite lovely Anne Page played by Karen Fishwick.

There is Slender, whose IQ rivals that of a pebble, played with suitable gormlessness by Tom Padley, who is the cousin of the scheming Robert Shallow the local JP, played like a 17th century Boysie with an eye on the main chance – and Anne’s £700 dowry – by Tim Samuels. He is the choice of Anne’s wealthy father George, played by Paul Dodds.


David Acton as the Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans

Then we have the normal, if accident prone, Fenton, a gentleman of reduced means, played by Luke Newberry. He is the choice of neither parent, but Anne loves him and has thus pledged her troth, which is the sort of thing they did then, in his direction.

Finally, bringing up the rear is Jonathan Cullen as the wonderful Dr Caius, the French medic with a penchant for mangling the English language, almost as a sort of Gallic revenge for ‘Allo ‘Allo’s Officer Crabtree.

His “a word in your ars” is a gem. He is wealthy, a big pulling point in Tudor times, and the preferred option of Anne’s mother Mistress Page, a lovely performance by Rebecca Lacey.

Then we have Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most memorable and most popular creations, played magnificently here by David Troughton. Falstaff is a fat, lecherous, vain knight with a somewhat errant cod piece going before him, who spends his time, pint pot in hand, in the local hostelry with ne’er do wells and criminals, quaffing large quantities of sack to ward off any risk of sobriety.

Always in need of money he decides that two wives of Windsor, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, who, surely only by coincidence, happen to be extremely wealthy, have given him the come on – I told you he was vain but forgot to mention he was optimistic. So, love, but mainly poverty, stricken he sends them letters professing his affection.

Identical love letters to two women who know each other is not the best idea even if you really are God’s gift to women, and when you are Falstaff, two yards around the waist by his own admission, and with his best years of revelry, or anything else, long behind him, it is positively dangerous.

ford and page

Girl power, Tudor style, with Beth Cordingley as Mistress Ford, Ishia Bennison as Mistress Quickly and Rebecca Lacey a Mistress Page 

Thus, Mistress Page and the skin-tight clad Mistress Ford, played with a lovely vampish air by Beth Cordingly, decide to teach the old lecher a lesson . . . or three. Their emphasised exchanges at Falstaff’s expense are comic gold.

Throw in Vince Leigh as the oh so jealous husband Frank Ford, who gets half a story and thinks his wife is having an affair and the romp quickly turns to farce. His Poundland disguise to trap Falstaff is priceless.

Around this collection we have Ishia Bennison, the good doctor’s housekeeper, Mistress Quickly, who has a nice little earner as a go between for all the suitors contacting Anne or her parents, while, falling regularly off her heels, we have the leopard skin clad hostess of The Garter, played with a delightful comic touch by Katy Brittain.

There are Falstaff’s three rogues Bardolph, Charlotte Josephine, Nym, who is announced “I am Nym” by Josh Finan loud enough to be heard in Warwick, and the gay, oh so gay, Pistol, minced along wonderfully by Afolabi Alli.

Add in a few more servants, including Mistress Ford’s two presumably Polish staff, John, the good doctor’s servant, played by Stevie Basaula, Simple, played by John Macaulay, Slender’s servant and Robin, played by Nima Taleghani, Falstaff’s put-upon pageboy and we are set for a fast moving, hilarious farce which fairly gallops along.

Acting is faultless, brilliant comic touches abound, timing is impeccable, and the performane just flies by in a whirl of laughs and wonder.

Adding to the fun is the excellent eight-piece band which, like the costumes, gives us everything across the centuries from Elizabethan chamber music to slide guitar played on everything from that mediaeval favourite, the shawm, to bagpipes.

It is one of the best things I have seen from the RSC, or indeed anywhere, for some time. It’s fun, clever, witty and glorious theatre. Packed with feel good factor and with a happy ending to boot. If you have read this far then there is just one thing left to do . . . go and see it. If you can't get to Stratford or London, it is being show live in cinemas on September 12. Search for your nearest cinema.

To 22-09-18 then at The Barbican 07-12-18 to 05-01-19.

Roger Clarke


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