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Essex Girls in Modern Adaptation of Shakespeare Comedy
Director Fiona Laird has got her geography slightly mixed up as this new RSC production is much more about the merry wives of Essex.
A mix of The Only Way Is Essex and 'Allo 'Allo
Tottering around in peep toe heels with designer handbags and cooing away with distinctive South East accents, our feisty heroines Mistress Page and Mistress Ford look to have stepped straight out of TV show The Only Way Is Essex (TOWIE). Even their husbands are getting in on the act, in sharp jackets, slicked back hair and slip on shoes with no socks.
It's a RSC directorial debut by Laird at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon, where it stays until 22 September before moving on to London's Barbican.
Laird has definitely hit the right tone with this new production of The Merry Wives of Windsor by updating the script for current times. Brexit, wheelie bins, Eastern European handymen, they all play a part in boosting the comedy while the backdrop is Stratford-upon-Avon's iconic black and white Tudor buildings.
What Laird has also done is put great thought into modernising the characterisations and scenarios to make them strike a chord with the type of shenanigans seen on reality TV shows like TOWIE.
There are still throwbacks to the play's origins and it opens refreshingly using shadows, audio and a Monty Python-esque cartoon sketch of Queen Elizabeth I writing to Shakespeare. She's ordering him to create a play featuring the much-loved Falstaff character in love. This was apparently how Merry Wives - not one of the Bard's most renowned stories - came about.
The costume department also deserves a mention for the impressive touches of Elizabethan England to everyone's outfits. Even in tight leggings, dresses and stilettos, the women have accessories of corsets or neck ruffles while the men are leading a new fashion in puffed up pantaloon trousers. Falstaff meanwhile has his own tiny codpiece.
David Troughton as Falstaff wooing Beth Cordingley's Mistress Ford.
This play is a light-hearted tale of Falstaff getting his come-uppance for wooing two married women (well-cast Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingly as Mistresses Page and Ford), who join forces to ridicule him through a series of tricks.
Meanwhile, there's also the courtship of Mistress Page's daughter Anne by three suitors. There's the French Dr Caius, whose scenes are reminiscent of 'Allo 'Allo and probably the funniest in the show thanks to the zest of actor Jonathan Cullen as Caius.
Second suitor, Slender, is mostly remarkable for the quirky relationship created with his uncle Justice Shallow. Tom Padley's meek and rather goofish Slender frequently gets a slap from his bullish uncle at the most opportune moments.
Finally, there's the romanticised view of charming and accident-prone Fenton (yes, there is a joke based around the famous dog-calling Fenton moment in there too). Luke Newberry's Fenton is accompanied on stage by a soundtrack of tongue-in-cheek heart-throb music and slow motion poses. It's very funny.
More like the Merry Wives of Essex
Despite all these impressive comic elements, it strangely does take a bit of time to warm into this production. It's not until around half an hour in that it all suddenly starts to gel together and the pace really lifts, as does the comedy.
From then on, these ridiculous characters really gain momentum.
What has been left well enough alone, and rightfully so, is the larger than life character of Sir John Falstaff. Laird has renowned actor David Troughton to bring out all this rascal's traits to life.
I thought I'd miss Antony Sher as Falstaff after his star turn in the RSC's Henry IV and V series, but Troughton brings out a more coarse and lewd side to Sir John that is more apt for him in this saucier play of failed seductions.
In his fat suit, brandishing moobs and being carted off in a wheelie bin, it's a world apart from the grave Troughton seen recently impressing in the RSC's Titus Andronicus and King Lear.
In a play that is led by women, it's ultimately the two leads - actresses Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingley - that shine the brightest. With interpretations that are cheeky, giggly, fun and cunning, transporting the merry wives off to Essex makes for a refreshing journey.
RATING: 3.5 / 5 stars
The Merry Wives of Windsor continues at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 22 September and then moves to the Barbican in London for performances from 7 December to 5 January 2019.