Panto season may be at an end in most places but it still has a few weeks to run at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Greg Doran’s new musical version of The Merry Wives of Windsor has all the ingredients of traditional festive fare, with songs, knockabout comedy, over-the-top performances and even a real-life Dame.
This is probably one of the bard’s weakest plays but, given the right performance, it can be a real romp with plenty of opportunity for colourful characterisations and fast-moving comedy business. The RSC have broken the text up with specially written songs (music by Paul Englishby and lyrics by Ranjit Bolt) and certainly don’t hold back on letting the actors have a whale of a time. Judi Dench is real luxury casting in the smallish role of Mistress Quickly and she inevitably brings a touch of class to the proceedings.
In addition, there are fun performances from the likes of Alistair McGowan as Ford and Simon Callow as Falstaff. Alexandra Gilbreath and Haydn Gwynne play the eponymous ladies as nouveau riche housewives and both bring great flair to their roles. They also sing well, which can’t be said for all the actors, with some less than West End standards on display. Certainly Scarlett Strallen as Mistress Anne is the real thing and Martin Crewes as Fenton has a good voice (as well as some of the soppier material of the evening). If some of the others aren’t as good, it really doesn’t matter that much. What they do bring is energy and colour to their characterisations.
There’s a great bunch of yobbish underlings in Pistol, Nym and Bardolph and a stand-out comedy performance from Simon Trinder as the foppish Slender. Ian Hughes as the Welsh parson Evans and Paul Chahidi as his love rival Dr Caius take turns to mangle the English language (how many times can you mispronounce “By gar” and still make it funny?) and both wring maximum laughs from their characters.
There are at least a couple of songs too many but they are for the most part well-written and good fun. I particularly enjoyed the second act hoedown with bang-on-a-can accompaniment which it would be difficult not to tap your foot along to. There’s a slight problem with some songs that, quoting directly from the play’s text, have to drive the action along. If you miss any of the lyrics, and clarity is a bit hit and miss at times, you’re in danger of losing the plot in what is already a complicated and potentially confusing play.
Don’t go to this show expecting any great insights into Shakespeare’s comedy writing. You might question whether The Merry Wives of Windsor needs this treatment but if you just sit back and enjoy the fast-paced antics and stream of inventive comedy, you’ll have a fun time.