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The Merry Wives

William Shakespeare
Northern Broadsides in partnership with the New Vic Theatre
New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Barrie Rutter as Sir John Falstaff Credit: Nobby Clark
Becky Hindley (Mistress Ford) and Nicola Sanderson (Mistress Page) Credit: Nobby Clark
Jos Vantyler (Abraham Slender), Roy North (George Page) and Gerard McDermott (Robert Shallow) Credit: Nobby Clark

Barrie Rutter admits that as a youngster he had a “big gob” which convinced a teacher that he should get the teenager into the school dramatic society. Now, at the age of 69, Rutter has more than half a century’s experience of performing Shakespeare—and it shows.

From the moment Rutter takes to the stage as the Bard’s most likeable rogue Sir John Falstaff, with padding to convey the fat knight’s not inconsiderable girth, the actor simply captivates the audience.

It’s clear that Rutter knows the sense of every word, the meaning of every phrase. You feel for the arrogant would-be lover who gets his come-uppance when thrown into the river after being duped by Mistresses Page and Ford. You tut at his gullibility when he falls for the women’s trick a second time. And you hope that somehow he might just come out on top even if you know the play’s outcome.

This is a play considered to be one of Shakespeare’s weakest, probably because it was written in haste. But in Rutter’s hands, any weaknesses are glossed over.

Rutter doesn’t take all the glory for himself. He also directs The Merry Wives and instils in each of the actors his love for Shakespeare so that they too can extract every nuance and comic touch from the script.

A cast of 16 all give commendable performances, their northern accents giving a down-to-earth without dumbing-down feel to the evening.

Nicola Sanderson and Becky Hindley make a good pairing as Mistresses Page and Ford. Sanderson is ideal as Margaret Page, the outgoing, jocular woman who wants her daughter to marry the ridiculous Dr Caius. Hindley excels as Alice Ford who is less headstrong and has to watch out for her controlling husband.

The scene in which they feign shock at Ford’s early return home and convince Sir John to hide in a basket with dirty washing is in their hands probably the finest in the play.

Andrew Vincent gives a sterling contribution as Frank Ford, his out-of-control jealousy leading him to unjustified bouts of anger that force his wife to try to change him.

I also enjoyed Jos Vantyler’s Abraham Slender, slightly stupid and camp as a suitor for the Pages’ daughter Ann, Roy North’s portrayal as the class-obsessed George Page and Helen Sheals as a garrulous Mistress Quickly.

On a simple set, the play has a 1920s feel and takes place in a typical northern town, which is why Windsor has been dropped from Shakespeare’s title. The fat woman of Brentford here comes from Ilkley. Otherwise, the Bard’s genius shines through the production as Northern Broadsides pays homage to the playwright in its customary fashion.

Occasionally, some of the actors go a little too much over the top as their exuberance gets the better of them. But audiences around the country will certainly enjoy the merriment and quality when this production goes on tour.

At the end of the evening, after the cast take their bows, Rutter regally walks around the stage, waving and taking in the applause. It’s well deserved.

Reviewer: Steve Orme