Christopher Luscombe’s glorious production of Shakespeare’s farce The Merry Wives of Windsor is full of brio and affection, utilising the conventions of physical comedy quite as much as the text to bring forth gales of laughter in the audience. The cast bring immense energy and affection to their performances: Christopher Benjamin makes a superb Falstaff, powerful and pitiful in equal measure. His timing is perfect and the richness of his voice calibrates a noble buffoonery perfectly.
The relationship between Serena Evans[ as Mistress Page and [Sarah Woodward as Mistress Ford is brilliantly devised. Their melodramatic overacting and facial expressions when in the presence of Falstaff are a pleasure in themselves. Philip Bird is excellent as the Frenchman, Dr Caius, his comic timing for the puns and linguistic jokes is impeccable. Andrew Havill as the jealously tormented Ford is inspired. Indeed the whole cast are almost uniformly excellent, with the exception of William Belchamber as Slender. He lacks credibility at the beginning when his deliberately wooden rendition of his lines seems simply that: wooden. He picks his energy up as Act One gets underway and then it seems to slip again momentarily in Act Two. Nevertheless this is a production with such powerful comedic values that it holds together in spite of this.
The set and costume design, designed by Janet Bird was ingenious. Making use of the revolving stage, it turned lives inside out, as the externals of one house turned into the interiors of another. This also lent itself to the farcical elements of the plot as actors slipped seamlessly from one location to another. The stage is galleried, with a group of five musicians playing authentic Elizabethan instruments throughout the play. This lends the production another layer of magic, amplified particularly sweetly in the final pageant when the cast and a troupe of children come with lit candles and exquisite fairy grotesques to torment and expose the pitiful figure of Falstaff in all his vanity.
This is a fantastic production, which brims with a heady mix of vulgar pleasures and irresistible charm.