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The Merry Wives – The Lowry, Salford

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Barrie Rutter

Reviewer: Jo Beggs

Sir John Falstaff is past his prime. But despite living alone above an ale-house and about as out of shape as a man can be, his vanity is still pretty intact. When he attempts to seduce not one, but two married women he sets himself up as the target for some pretty impressive revenge. He’s definitely chosen the wrong women to mess with. Mistress Page and Mistress Ford have plenty of time on their hands and share a pretty wicked sense of humour. Falstaff’s going to wish he’d never written those troublesome love letters.

Northern Broadsides bring their signature Northern-ness along with a good dose of pantomime to this, one of Shakespeare’s lighter plays. Despite being something of a knock-about farce, there’s often a tendency to take this, and other Shakespeare comedies, rather too seriously. Not so Barrie Rutter, Northern Broadsides Founder, Director and Patriarch. Rutter knows a good comedy when he sees one – and here gives this somewhat ridiculous play the treatment it deserves. You get the sense that the company are having as much fun with it as Shakespeare’s own Globe players might have had. There’s a touch of the bawdy, the camp and the chaotic about the production that seems totally in-keeping with the text.

The production’s 1920s upper class setting adds a touch of P G Wodehouse to the proceedings, as do the wildly unlikely scrapes that Falstaff gets himself in and (mostly) out of. Rutter plays the old buffoon with a delightful sense of naivety, retaining enough humanity to allow for resolution at the end (once he’s been thoroughly humiliated of course). Although Falstaff is central to the action, the play is packed with colourful characters, and Rutter’s ensemble company is full of great comic actors.

Becky Hindley as Mistress Ford and Nicola Sanderson as Mistress Page make a great double act, revelling in their own cleverness, yet ultimately upholding principle and morality. They’re very convincing BFFs. Helen Sheals as the gossipy Mistress Quickly delivers a perky performance and Jos Vantyler is delightfully coquettish and disinterested as Abraham Slender, the supposed love-interest for Mistress Page’s lovely daughter. Frenchman Doctor Caius (Andy Cryer) and Welshman Sir Hugh Evans (John Gully) are perhaps a bit over played, the former’s ‘Allo Allo’ accent so strong that the sense of the text is sometimes lost, but given the galloping pace of the production there’s hardly time to focus on any one performance or character too much. If anything the crazy, ranting Frenchman just adds to the sense of amiable chaos.

Played on a simple, bright set, the whole production has a lightness and simplicity that’s barely ever found in Shakespeare productions. There’s nothing over clever about the design or costumes, props are kept to a minimum and there’s some simple live music (by Conrad Nelson) provided by the multi-talented cast. All of this means there’s little distraction from the play itself – which proves itself to be a timelessly classic, laugh-out-loud comedy.

Runs until 19 March 2016

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The North West team is under the editorship of John Roberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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