Strengths abound in Dominic Dromgooles new production of Shakespeares great double bill (the first at the reconstituted Globe), chief among them Roger Allams extraordinary performance as Falstaff.
Allam has all the skills of both a great comedian and a great classical actor, qualities essential for the character but too rarely seen.
His comedy timing is exquisite and he plays the text like a virtuoso instrumentalist, putting recent performances of the part, Michael Gambons and David Warners among them, in the shade.
Allams Falstaff is an upright, fruity-voiced remnant of a fine, handsome gentleman and all thats missing is the frequently referred to portliness of a man so much defined by his size. It seems to be de rigueur these days to play Falstaff slim (is that political correctness, an actorly avoidance of padding or the relative effect of living in the midst of an obesity epidemic?). Whatever the reason, some humour is lost when the target for myriad jokes about fat bellies is just too small.
While Allam towers for the hugeness of his talent instead, hes not alone in delivering a thoroughly watchable performance. Jamie Parkers Hal is a truthful, natural characterisation that could grow easily into a credible Henry V, giving a real sense of responsibility dragging him kicking into the real world and intruding on his fun. You feel the hero is only a step away, as he skips and delights in the excesses of his youth.
Even after the heroics of Shrewsbury at the end of Part 1, Parker provides Oliver Cottons king with plenty of ammunition for utter frustration at the potential loss of a hard-won position. Their first scene together, earlier in the play, really explores the generational gap between a father and son approaching the same problem from different angles. Parker stews with frustration and one cant help sympathising with Cottons anger at not getting through. We see both sides of the divide at once.
Cotton brings nobility to the king but has a tendency to bark his lines and his final scenes in particular feel rushed and lacking in poignancy.
Dromgoole makes a strange choice with Hotspur, the firebrand hero who should be all that the heir apparent is not. Sam Crane plays him as a foppish braggart, chest puffed out and as much the perfumd milliner as the courtier he despises in his first speech. He seems to be modelling himself on Rik Mayalls Lord Flashheart, an interesting interpretation but not a convincing one. This Hal could take Hotspur in his sleep.
Intriguingly, Crane doubles the part with that other show-off Ancient Pistol in Part 2, where decorum goes right out the window in a whirlwind performance of great exuberance but, with Hotspur more than half way there already, some of the impact the actor could have had is lost.
Another man of action given a make-over is Hals companion in trickery, Poins, who Danny Lee Wynter plays as an affected popinjay but here the playing against type is more effective. Its one of a number of colourful secondary roles, which include a squat and very funny Bardolph by Paul Rider and a fiery Doll Tearsheet from Jade Williams. William Gaunt and Christopher Godwin are deliciously decrepit as Shallow and Silence in Part 2, well-cooked but never over-done.
The press day was plagued by sudden, savage downpours that drowned the steadfast groundlings and occasioned Allam to cast his eyes wearily to the heavens and give an impromptu quote from King Lear (Blow winds and crack your cheeks), which delighted an audience already eating out of his hand.
Personally, I could have done without the prologues from a bunch of mummers, which spill from the foyer areas into the yard before each play but Im sure theres plenty of historical justification for this addition to an already long day and it has a crowd-pleasing function.
Dromgooles production is witty and fast-moving, strong on storytelling, with some great gags and nice set-pieces. If his inspiration seems to be running out towards the end of Part 2, you are unlikely to find a more entertaining performance of these two great plays and Roger Allams Falstaff is already knocking on the door of greatness.