This is the first time that this play has been performed at the Regent's Park theatre. In some ways that's strange as Falstaff is a natural crowd pleaser for this attractive setting. On the other hand, if the theatre is going to produce as many cumbersome and badly-acted productions as this, there'll be no queues of people waiting to see it. In fact, given the number of people who were walking out during the evening, I thought we might see more people on stage than in the audience.
Director Alan Strachan never really gets to grip with either of the main themes of this play. The first being the king's despair at his son's behaviour, a despair exacerbated by Hotspur's emergence as the sort of son that Henry wished he had.
Add to this theme, the fact that Henry is deeply sorrowful of his part in the overthrow of Richard and guilt about his accession and a desire for peace are strong motives for all his subsequent behaviour. Strachan draws our attention to this right from the start by revealing the king as prostrate before an altar, while extracts from Richard II mean that the king recalls Richard's own words.
It's a neat idea, as modern audiences might not be so attuned to the history behind Henry's usurpation of the throne. Unfortunately, Christopher Godwin's king never really convinces as someone coming to terms with this dilemma: one doesn't feel that he's truly penitent, nor that he's truly ruthless enough to keep a grip on power.
But the real weaknesses here are the two sons. For a production of this play to work, it's essential to have a Hotspur who is the epitome of courage and nobility; instead we're presented with a Hotspur who mistakes petulance for rage and peevishness for nobility. It doesn't help that Keith Dunphy's accent seems to veer wildly between Geordie, Yorksire, Welsh and Scottish so that one scene with him could seem like a veritable Cook's tour.
Jordan Frieda's engaging Hal is more plausible (and has certainly got the movie star looks) but his roistering is far too low-key - he sounds like any number of the minor public schoolboys filling the bars of Clapham on a Saturday - tiresome maybe, but scarcely behaviour to scandalise the parents.
It's left to Christopher Benjam's Falstaff to rescue the show - and he partly succeeds. Here is a Falstaff truly in love with himself and who relishes every barb, every insult and who truly wallows in his own gluttony and lubricity. It's a fine comic performance, but what's missing is the underlying pathos that all the great Falstaffs have.
The Regent's Park can, and should, do better than this. This is a flat beginning to the new season - at least the only way is up.
- Maxwell Cooter