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REVIEW: The Merry Wives of Windsor at the RSC

David Troughton as Sir John Falstaff and Beth Cordingly as Mistress Ford in Fiona Laird’s production at the RSC. Photo: Manuel Harlan/RSC
David Troughton as Sir John Falstaff and Beth Cordingly as Mistress Ford in Fiona Laird’s production at the RSC. Photo: Manuel Harlan/RSC

Steve Sutherland reviews The Merry Wives of Windsor, on at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 22nd September

Esration. There’s a word for you. Esration. It means to die laughing, of which there have been a few notable cases down the years including a gentleman called Alex Mitchell from King’s Lynn who pegged it on his sofa at home after howling uncontrollably for over 25 minutes straight watching an episode of a rather lame TV Show some of you may remember called The Goodies. Apparently some time later his widow sent The Goodies a letter thanking them for providing her deceased hubby with such a jolly end.

I mention this because there were moments during Merry Wives when I feared my good lady wife might have to pen a similar missive to Mr Shakespeare as the old ticker and other vital organs took a right raucous pounding. Be warned, this is dangerously daft stuff.

It begins, spookily enough, in homage to another less infantile icon from our televisual past, with a Monty Python-esque video of Queen Elizabeth I’s cartoon head instructing The Bard to get his gubbins in gear and knock out a play, pronto, about Sir John Falstaff, who somewhat tickles her fancy. And then, beware, it gets even sillier. And sillier still until it threatens top the richter scale of hilarity.

Merry Wives has long been a Sutherland favourite and we remember with great affection the RSC’s last terrific production when director Phillip Breen set it in the 1930’s shires and treated us to Desmond Barrit’s wonderfully oily Sir John serenading Alexandria Gilbreath’s sultry Alice Ford to the strains of Marvin Gaye — surely a scene never to be bettered. Barrit’s fatso was a thing hewn from legend, a very blancmange of self-pity.

Incredibly, this new Wives matches it, emerging from its bulky shadow with a show that could be subtitled The Only Way Is Windsor. It’s like Love Island has been shifted to Stratford-U-A and all the characters kitted out from one of the more garish stalls at Wellesbourne Market. Brilliantly, this has the double effect of off-setting some of the play’s decidedly non-PC (but super funny) racist jibes against the French and Welsh which must have been the vogue in Queen Liz’s reign by laying the English open to similar ridicule, and yet it also affectionately embraces the reality of the modern English character, with warmth, wisdom and high emotion as evident in the Essex nouveau rich as in the traditional higher brow.

This is an England of erudite Polish refuse collectors, pampered lap dogs and golf, which replaces Shakespeare’s hunting as the main masculine leisure occupation and allows much mirth at the expense of a remote controlled caddy bag.

To the cast then, which is splendid throughout: David Troughton’s Sir John is a magnificent wobble of bluster and ire, as monstrously vain a rogue as ever trod these hallowed boards. With his Trump-y ginger sweep-over, his celebrated belly and sack-pickled nose, he cuts a precarious, breathless swagger in his various woo-ings and several costume changes so stupendous that we won’t spoil it for you by revealing them here.

The pub scene post his stinking wheelie-bin escapade, with his simpering speech about raining potatoes and his alacrity in sinking, is quite the supreme comic spectacle but he doesn’t have it all his own flabby way. We’d be here all night if we gave due credit to all his companions but it would be criminally remiss not to tip you off about the peril to your funny bone provided by Jonathan Cullen’s Dr Caius, a French caricature drawn from the very well of inspiration that is ‘Allo ‘Allo with his manifold foibles of pronunciation, “arse” and “ears” particularly rousing thunderous applause.

Plaudits equally to Rebecca Lacey’s Mistress Page, Beth Cordingley’s Mistress Ford, Katy Brittain’s Hostess Of The Garter and Ishia Bennison’s Mistress Quickly, all strong, lavishly manicured, bossom-y matriarchs of the Babs Windsor variety who could have tottered onto the stage in their stilettos straight off the set of EastEnders.

Director Fiona Laird has them all play it large and loose as they like for maximum laughs with licence to milk it at any given chink of a chuckle. Tonight David Acton’s fleet-footed Welsh Parson encourages the audience to bellow an impromptu hymn, Brexit gets a mention, there’s a lovely gay bit at the denouement and the afore-mentioned wheelie-bin is loudly celebrated, replacing the soiled buck-basket of olde.

This Merry Wives is a delight from start to Fin, the RSC can hardly have staged a more enjoyable triumph.

Oh, and the word Esration… it doesn’t exist. There is no word for death by laughter. In tribute to this tremendous show, we’ve just been moved to invent one.

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