DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Merry Wives – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Barrie Rutter

Designer: Lis Evans

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Northern Broadsides’ productions are a miracle of re-invention. The current tour of The Merry Wives takes in 12 theatres, a mix of in-the-round, proscenium arch and thrust stages, plus the atmospheric combination of a narrow acting corridor and dark arches that constitute the company’s Halifax home. Turning around and re-styling a production with a cast of 16 is no mean feat, but The Merry Wives which began in-the-round at co-producers The New Vic is pretty much at home on the Quarry Theatre’s large thrust stage.

The Merry Wives (Broadsides have dispensed with the reference to Windsor) is unique among Shakespeare’s plays, a prose farce set in contemporary England. The plot, involving Falstaff’s absurd attempt to woo two contented middle-class wives for their money, leads to the sort of farcical set-ups that older readers will associate with Brian Rix. Instead of losing his trousers Falstaff gets buried in a basket of filthy laundry and thrown in the river. Later he anticipates Mr Toad by escaping dressed in women’s clothing. Even the magic of the last scene is openly engineered to humiliate Falstaff and pair lovely Ann Page with the right husband (a choice of three – well, it is a farce).

Shakespeare’s linguistic genius shows itself in earthily imaginative metaphor and wordplay, but the play’s strength lies even more in the huge range of sharply defined comic characters. There are a couple of funny foreigners and Falstaff’s little gang of layabout ex-soldiers and pick purses, but by and large, this is about the middle classes: Falstaff clinging to his status as a knight, the Pages and Fords solidly aspirational, the parson, the doctor, the innkeeper.

Barrie Rutter’s production sets the play somewhere in Yorkshire in the 1920s. In the text the leisured middle classes go birding; this production adds witty design references to golf, tennis and athletics. This is clearly the country club set. Lis Evans’ 1920s costumes look good, with the occasional amusingly over-the-top extravagance.

With minimal doubling, the casting is uniformly strong, with every character established individually. Barrie Rutter is at the centre as Falstaff, absurdly vain, but always human, never too grotesque, with no existential meaning or significance, just a very funny fat old man with a glorious way with words. Nicola Sanderson and Becky Hindley work so well as the merry wives because they create the impression of real friends having fun.

Andrew Vincent (Ford) as the jealous husband is volcanic; Roy North (Page) as the complaisant one is amiably mischievous. Helen Sheals busies and buzzes and talks and talks as Mistress Quickly and Mark Stratton is the expansive Mine Host with his eye on the till. John Gully (Sir Hugh) and Andy Cryer (Doctor Caius) form an irresistible double act and Jos Vantyler’s Slender is all affectation and self-regarding simplicity.

In the Quarry Theatre the sense of complicity with the audience by way of aside, gesture or expression is reduced, it’s harder to make the audience feel part of the action, but on Press Night, as the company launched into a final Charleston, the warmth of the response was beyond doubt.

Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. 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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