Alistair McGowan (pictured) will make his Royal Shakespeare Company and musical debut opposite Dame Judi Dench and Desmond Barrit in the world premiere of Merry Wives The Musical, which runs in rep at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon from 2 December 2006 to 10 February 2007 and has now announced its full cast (See News, 21 Apr 2006).

The award-winning comedian and impressionist - who was last seen on stage in The Government Inspector and 5/11 at Chichester Festival Theatre (See News, 18 Jan 2005) - will play jealous husband Frank Ford in the new musical version of Shakespeare’s comedy.

Directed and adapted by RSC chief associate director Gregory Doran, Merry Wives The Musical has music by Paul Englishby (who worked with Doran on The Tamer Tamed and All’s Well that Ends Well) and lyrics by Ranjit Bolt. It’s performed as part of the RSC’s ongoing Complete Works Festival, which began in April this year and runs until April 2007.

Previously announced leading lady Dame Judi Dench, who was last seen in the West End in Hay Fever, plays Mistress Quickly in the production. Her previous musical credits are Cabaret and A Little Night Music. She also played Adriana in Trevor Nunn’s musical version of The Comedy of Errors in 1976 for the RSC. RSC associate Barrit, whose musical credits include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the National, plays Falstaff.

Dench, Barrit and McGowan will be joined by current Mary Poppins, Scarlett Strallen, also making her RSC debut as Anne Page; Alexandra Gilbreath, whose RSC credits include The Taming of the Shrew and The Tamer Tamed and is currently seen on television in Life Begins, as Mistress Ford; and Haydn Gwynne, who created the role of dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson in Billy Elliot, for which she was nominated for Whatsonstage.com and Olivier Awards for Best Actress in a Musical, as Mistress Page.

Other roles will be played by Tobias Beer (Simple), Robert Burt (Host), Paul Chahidi (Dr Caius), Christopher Colley (Jack Rugby), Ian Conningham (Nym), The Woman in White’s original Walter Hartright, Martin Crewes (Fenton), Jeffrey Dench (Shallow), Dominic Colchester (John), Rob Edwards (Page), Ian Hughes (Hugh Evans), Anna Lowe (Maid), Brendan O’Hea (Pistol), Ian Pirie (Bardolph), Simon Thomas (Robert), Lisa Thorner (Maid), Simon Trinder (Slender).

Doran said: “Merry Wives was written at the request of Queen Elizabeth I in two weeks, so has always tended to be regarded as more of an entertainment than a finely crafted or poetic play. This makes it ideal for adapting and is probably why there have been so many versions, including operas, based on the story. This will be a celebratory, seasonal contribution to the Complete Works Festival and yet another way to visit Shakespeare, along with all the other versions that visiting companies have brought to the table.”

The production is designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis with lighting by Tim Mitchell and movement by Michael Ashcroft.

- by Caroline Ansdell