The Merry Wives of Windsor

William Shakespeare
Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre
Grosvenor Park, Chester
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You couldn’t escape that ‘end of summer’ feeling as the last Test Match at the Oval ended minutes before the final performance of Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre.

However, unlike the cricket, which had been interrupted by rain earlier in the afternoon, the players in Chester were not planning to run for cover and the performance would go ahead in defiance of the deluge which was hitting the city.

Fortunately for all concerned, the rain stopped just as the first scene began (it really is uncanny how that seems to happen here) and we were able to enjoy a magnificent swan-song free from the tyranny of umbrellas.

Director Rebecca Gatward has pulled a masterstroke with this production by setting it in the 1970s. In fact, the play sits so comfortably in this era that it is difficult to envisage future productions being set in any other.

As with the other two productions this year, The Merry Wives of Windsor sees an abundance of strong performances but perhaps the first word should go to designer Jessica Curtis for the dazzling array of costumes that incorporates the full range of 1970s fashions. We have late era hippies, some proto punk-rockers, lounge lizards and chic slacks sported by the wives. That’s before we even start on Falstaff’s wardrobe!

The musical interludes are appropriate and even feature a jazzy version of "God Save The Queen" (Sex Pistols, not National Anthem). There is also a clever nod to the Bob Dylan "Subterranean Homesick Blues" video when Ford displays his words on placards that are then discarded.

The two wives, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, are brilliantly portrayed by Louise Kempton and Ellie Burrow respectively. Despite being set in the 1970s, with an ever-present “ooh err missus” undercurrent, you are always left with the feeling that these two are in full control of events.

In comparison, the men, notably their dim husbands and the irrepressible Falstaff, seem like putty in their hands as they plot and deliver their schemes in some superbly camp-farce scenes. James Holmes as Ford touches a nerve with the audience with his petulance and sadness whilst Graham O’Mara is splendidly languid as the pipe-smoking, golfing Page.

Adam Keast again excels, this time as Hugh Evans, a Welsh man of the cloth, and Thomas Richardson goes down a storm as the ponderous Slender. Also popular is Emilio Doorgasingh as the French Doctor Cauis, always spoiling for a fight and his scene with Tom Connor’s Simple is eye-wateringly brilliant.

However, Daniel Goode is simply irresistible as Falstaff; so good that it’s tempting to spend winter imagining him reprising the role next summer in Henry IV Part 1. He is the living embodiment of testosterone-fuelled pomposity, an egomaniacal, medallion- sporting wastrel with a vital hint of narcissism.

The air is thisk with his cheap deodorant and aftershave and his room above the Star and Garter a positive "playboys' paradise". In short he is an absolute treat and has the audience in the palm of his hand as we are led through his chapter of follies.

There is a wealth of scenes to enjoy the full extent of the character of this loveable rogue. His entry to seduce Mistress Ford, complete with rose between teeth and a box of Milk Tray, is priceless as is the sight of him emerging bedraggled from the river with a sodden toupee. However, a personal favourite would be the scenes between Falstaff and ‘Mr Brook’, the disguised Ford, where Falstaff oozes splendid indignation as he recounts, blow by blow, the humiliations that he has endured.

The end of the final performance saw a well-deserved standing ovation which seemed to sum up the feelings of audiences (totalling around 25,000) throughout the run, not just for Artistic Director Alex Clifton and the cast who have entertained us so well, but for the entire creative team and the band of volunteers who worked tirelessly to make the whole experience so enjoyable.

Whilst there was an inevitably wistful feeling as we wandered through the immaculate gardens as dusk fell, we had memories aplenty to sustain us through winter and a new programme of first-class theatre in an unrivalled setting and right on the doorstep to look forward to next year.

Dave Jennings