The Merry Wives (of Windsor), one of Shakespeare’s most farcical plays, rumoured to have been written in just 14 days by Elizabeth I’s command, has most recently been taken on by Northern Broadsides and is touring theatres across the North. Having been transported from its original time and place; the early 1400s and Windsor, Northern Broadsides have created a cleverly new, yet comfortingly familiar, version of this play having it set in the 1920s in the North of England.
Before the real action truly began you were thrown in to the mood of the play with characteristically 20s music and minimalistic, clean cut staging comprising of geometric shapes and a lot of white along with a croquet set tucked in the corner – we knew we were in the 20s.
As soon as the characters came on stage, it was clear that this was a funny play, with Jos Vantyler as a preposterously dressed, baby voiced Abraham Slender making the audience laugh out-loud from the get-go. Accompanied by his uncle, the rather serious Judge Robert Shallow (Tom Dyer Blake), and the very Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans (John Gully) we see Master Slender agree in a rather nonchalant manner that he will marry the in-demand Ann Page (Sarah Eve).
Almost as wide as he was tall, the entrance of Sir John Falstaff (Barrie Rutter), the main protagonist of the play, marked him out to be the fool immediately. With his ginormous belly, bunch of rag-tag followers and incredibly obvious self-confidence, Rutter portrayed him to perfection; a loveable rogue.
Special attention should also be given to Nicola Sanderson (Mistress Page) and Becky Hindley (Mistress Ford) who were excellent individually and together. Sanderson brought a bubbly, vivacious Mistress Page to life beautifully, with her over the top confidence and contentment with her life, whilst Hindley portrayed her rather more reserved, slightly fed-up Mistress Ford just as convincingly. Together, however, there was clear enjoyment in each other’s company and the pranks that they were playing on Falstaff, making their roles as close friends and co-conspirators flawless.
Andy Cryer’s portrayal of Doctor Caius should also have a special mention. Shakespeare clearly took pleasure from taking the Mick out of a Frenchman and Doctor Caius is no exception, with his tendency to take offence easily and try to sort things out with violence, and Cryer seemed to derive no less enjoyment from his depiction of this ridiculous man. Bounding on stage with unnatural amounts of energy each and every time and with a fantastically over the top French accent, Cryer never failed to make every member in the audience grin.
From the whole play the most stand-out entertaining scene was where the Mistresses Ford and Page play their last trick on Sir John with the help of every other character. Instructed to dress as a woodland spirit the mix of a man and a stag Rutter came on, again designed to look utterly outrageous, with antlers made from, the very 20s items of, hockey and lacrosse sticks with cricket pads covering his chest. But things only got more ridiculous, with the seemingly sound parson, Sir Hugh, leading a band of other characters all dressed as fairies. There was music and dancing and clever lighting to make this scene initially quite scary but in the end left the audience howling with laughter and wanting more and more.
The play finished with some clever confetti blowing with a fan and a raucous 20s Charlstonesque dance that entertained all. Each aspect of this performance was over the top and farcical, with everything from slap-stick to cleverly emphasised word play humour involved. Such a silly, fun performance, anyone and everyone would enjoy!