Pros: The silver jubilee setting and the charms of Coram’s Fields made for a very special evening. The cast handle the comedy and wit of Shakespeare with flair.
Cons: Noises from the activities surrounding the venue were a tad distracting.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is Shakespeare’s comedy of provincial life, where the married women gain the upper hand over the knavish and irrepressible Falstaff. His cocksure attempts to seduce two of Windsor’s finest mistresses for their money backfires, for both women are aware of his ploy and enact a ruse of their own to teach him a lesson. The mayhem and mishaps that emerge in this offering are wildly entertaining, thanks the seasoned efforts of The Principal Theatre Company, who are now in their fifteenth year of presenting the Bard’s plays.
This open-air production at Coram Field’s enclosed playground somehow already feels provincial, which is not what one expects in central London. The Windsor of this play has been thrown forward nearly 600 years to 1977 during the celebrations of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. At the play’s opening, the cast spill out of red, white and blue tents; surrounded by Union Jack flags, they are intent on enjoying this national holiday. Carrying plates of sandwiches, drinks, trifles and cakes, the cast display immediate chemistry as they launch straight into a good old sing-song, and from there manage to keep the energy and farce lively and engaging throughout.
Ruth Clarke-Irons has done a fantastic job with the musical direction, as the songs are well chosen and suitably humorous. The cast also play instruments and harmonise to pleasing effect. You can expect to hear some of the seventies’ greatest hits, including 10cc’s I’m Not in Love and Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff. My favourite number was Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which serves to makes you feel sorry for Falstaff when he gets his comeuppance, since he is after all, ‘just a poor boy from a poor family’. All aspects of the seventies theme worked well, not least the hilarious and vivid costumes. Falstaff presents as an entertainer and one-time celebrity, looking like a corpulent Bee Gees reject in his disco flared suit and shades. Bardolph and Pistol, the unemployed musicians are dressed in Sex Pistol’s punk and for the rest of the cast, there is hippy gear and elegant floral patterns galore.
Paul Gladwin puts every shred of his being into creating a funny and ultimately endearing Falstaff, who is funniest when greatly overestimating his allure to the opposite sex. Much of the comedy is drawn from many of the seventies’ top-rated comedies. For example, the highly-strung and incensed Doctor Caius has all the amusing exaggerations of Basil Fawlty, only in a French accent. And I particularly enjoyed Daniel Brennan’s performance as Master Ford. He is a fiercely jealous husband yet stridently camp, in the vein of Are You Being Served. A small but pleasing part to mention is Zoe Littleton as Simple, the hired help – her wistful combing of her hair with a toilet brush never failed to get a laugh.
Cuts had to be made with the script, but I didn’t feel much, if anything, was lost. The gags are so well executed, it is hard to imagine another production working the language any better than we see here. Early on in the performance you do have to put up with the noise from the activities taking place around Coram Field’s, but it is only mildly distracting. Overall, this revenge comedy will definitely brighten your evening, provided the great British weather cooperates of course! A lively farce of sexual jealousy, double-dealing and disguise, along with the seventies numbers, and very British celebratory spirit makes this production definitely worth a visit.
Author: William Shakespeare
Director: Christopher Geelan
Producer: The Principal Theatre Company
Booking Until: 26 July 2014
Box Office: 020 8807 6680
Booking Link: www.millfieldartscentre.co.uk