Merry Wives the Musical

Based on the play by William Shakespeare, adapted by Gregory Doran, music by Paul Englishby, lyrics by Ranjit Bolt

Royal Shakespeare Company

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

(2006)

Review by Steve Orme

Theatre professionals, critics and drama fans have all praised the Royal Shakespeare Company for tackling its biggest ever project, the Complete Works Festival. It's a celebration of all the known writings of our greatest dramatist - yet the Festival has thrown up inconsistencies.

The dust has hardly been blown off some of the Bard's most memorable and familiar plays. For instance Hamlet, directed by Janet Suzman, was on for only eleven performances while there will be only four outings for a Polish Macbeth next month. It's open to debate whether that's because the RSC has recently performed those very well-known plays or if it was due to scheduling complications.

It's four years since the RSC put on The Merry Wives of Windsor. I described that production as a prime example of what the RSC does best: taking a fresh look at a familiar play and presenting it with vitality and polish.

The play has been the inspiration for a number of musical adaptations over the years. Usually they've taken an operatic form and had a change of title because they've centred more on the misfortunes of Sir John Falstaff than Shakespeare's women.

Now Gregory Doran and the RSC give us Merry Wives the Musical which is a strange concept for the RSC: as with all its performances since Michael Boyd became artistic director, verse-speaking is the number-one priority and the quality of acting is unmatchable. Yet those actors also have to sing and dance; not all of them are sufficiently skilled in all the disciplines.

The production is a bit of a hotchpotch: the songs are not particularly memorable, certain effects seem to be included for their gimmick value and the costumes come from wildly different eras. While Mistresses Ford and Page are sumptuously dressed in '50s attire, other characters are more traditionally clothed while Nym is a punk rocker, Pistol a Goth and Bardolph an alcohol-soaked, kilt-wearing Scot.

Although musicals are not one of the RSC's strengths, it doesn't excuse some of the sound problems which littered the production; sometimes it was several seconds before the vocals could be heard at the proper volume.

Yet whenever the production is on the verge of sliding into mediocrity, it's rescued by acting of the highest calibre. There's the buffoonish likeability of Simon Callow's "monstrous fat" Falstaff whose huge girth means he has difficulty walking; the refined yet flirty Haydn Gwynne (Mistress Page) and Alexandra Gilbreath (Mistress Ford); Alistair McGowan who makes an astonishingly good impression as Frank Ford; the comically camp Simon Trinder as Abraham Slender; and Paul Chahidi whose Dr Caius seems to have learned English from the same tutor who taught Officer Crabtree in 'Allo 'Allo!

That's not to forget Judi Dench who effortlessly and unforgettably slips into the role of Mistress Quickly; and Martin Crewes who as Fenton delivers the surprise of the evening, powerfully and emotionally expressing his love for Anne Page in the song Oh Anne.

Merry Wives the Musical has its faults yet Doran's production rattles along harmoniously, the cast approach it with boundless enthusiasm and they reprise the best song at the end - the light and jovial Merry Wives which has the audience clapping in rapturous appreciation. You'll have a spring in your step as you walk away from the theatre singing Merry Wives; the finale overcomes any flaws in the concept.

"Merry Wives the Musical" runs until February 10th