Review: Merry Wives of Windsor at Grosvenor Park ****
We’ve probably all been to a party like it at some time in our lives – a night of high spirits, boozy flirtations…and a couple arguing by the bins at the end of the evening.
And director John Young sets out his stall early on in this pacy summer version of the Merry Wives of Windsor, opening with a few punchy bars of Elton’s Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.
The snappy party soundtrack, played and sung by the cast, also includes Cyndi Lauper’s 80s classic Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.
Merry Wives of Windsor is one of very few Shakespeare plays where the women genuinely have the upper hand.
And here the show really does belong to the wives of the title, pursued by a lustful Sir John Falstaff but niftily turning from targets to tormentors.
Victoria Brazier and Suzanne Ahmet are a delightful double act as Mistresses Ford and Page, virtuous spouses and champagne-chugging party girls – particularly Ahmet’s Meg Page who glows with a wily vivaciousness.
The morally incontinent ‘fat Knight’ Falstaff doesn’t stand a chance once the pair team up to effect his comeuppance.
Howard Chadwick’s frisky Sir John, sporting a range of preposterous ensembles from toned-down George Melly to Carnaby Street dandy to Danny Zuko, is preening and idiotic but likeable.
So likeable in fact that after the initial amusing encounter with the two women – and a subplot featuring a gleefully preposterous turn from Darren Kuppan as a jealous Mr Ford - the retribution starts to feels more like playground bullying.
The action unfolds over one evening at a garden party at the Fords’ home, and designer Jess Curtis’s eco set of living grasses has really matured since the open-air theatre run started six weeks ago. There’s no lack of shrubbery for characters to hide in.
Here in the garden setting, Shakespeare’s laundry basket becomes a giant refuse bin of the kind usually found behind pubs and is happily capacious enough to take not just Falstaff but several supposedly smelly bin bags of rubbish to boot.
There’s a serviceable, slimmed down version of Shakespeare’s secondary plotline which sees suitors vying for the hand of young Ann Page (Jessica Dives).
But it definitely plays second fiddle to the shenanigans surrounding the Bard’s ‘gross watery pumpkin’.
In essence, it’s speedy, saucy, lots of fun and at times a little bit chaotic – but all together a merry 90-minutes of open-air theatre.
Top: Howard Chadwick as Sir John Falstaff. Photo by Ant Clausen