The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Merry Wives The Musical premiered last night (12 December 2006, previews from 2 December) and continues in rep until 10 February 2007 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon as part of the RSC’s year-long Complete Works festival (See News, 21 Apr 2006).

The all-star cast features Simon Callow, making his RSC debut as Falstaff after he replaced an injured Desmond Barrit at short notice during rehearsals, Judi Dench (as Mistress Quickly), TV impressionist Alistair McGowan (Frank Ford), Scarlett Strallen (Anne Page), Alexandra Gilbreath (Mistress Ford) and Haydn Gwynne (Mistress Page). The production is directed by RSC chief associate director Gregory Doran, who also adapted the piece, with music by Paul Englishby and lyrics by Ranjit Bolt.

Overnight critics gave the musical a mixed reception. While they unanimously praised Dench’s performance, they concurred that the source play itself is one of Shakespeare’s weakest and the plot seems all the thinner for being adapted for musical comedy. While some enjoyed the eclectic musical styles employed by Englishby, others tired of the score of many genres, and some felt the company was trying too hard to make merry.

  • Pete Wood on (4 stars) – “The production is cast to the hilt: aside from Simon Callow, there’s Judi Dench, Alistair McGowan, Haydn Gwynne and Alexandra Gilbreath. Also making their presence felt are Simon Trinder, a star of the recent RSC Spanish Golden Age season, Paul Chahidi, unobtrusively excellent of late and terrific here as mad Dr Caius, and Ian Hughes as Sir Hugh Evans, a Welsh Parson. In the programme notes, Doran promises ‘a romp’, something the production, for the most part, delivers in spades. It’s beautifully staged and excellently played - yet it doesn’t always sweep one up as one feels it should.… This being a Doran production, the experience is never less than rewarding and it will undoubtedly be a hit. Look out for Brenda O'Hea’s wicked Russell Brand impersonation."

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (1 star) – “While an epidemic of song-and-dance productions spreads through the West End, the Royal Shakespeare Company embarks on an expensive gamble, takes leave of the straight stuff and inflicts this flamboyantly awful, musical version of The Merry Wives of Windsor upon us. I came out whistling in the dark, lamenting the poverty of music and songs and the lumbering, heavy-handed performance-style…. Its 15 songs sound mistily derivative…. The lyrics of Ranjit Bolt, an experienced translator but new to song-writing, constitute a wit-free zone…. In the course of three hours, there are only three minutes of musical and emotional impact. Unsurprisingly, Judi Dench supplies all of them…. Doran's irritating, frequent directorial tactic of standing his actors in a virtual row, from where they tend to speak at us rather than to each other, accentuates the production's artificial air, to which only Dame Judi's fine Mistress Quickly proves a spirited, splendid exception.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (3 stars) – “I found it a rather strenuous romp that often seemed jokey rather than genuinely humorous…. this is a soufflé that takes a long time to rise. And the real reason lies in the nature of the beast. Shakespeare's play is a precise social comedy about bourgeois revenge on a dilapidated aristocracy: here, however, we are in the no man's land of musical comedy…. And Englishby's score similarly shops around…. Of course, there are compensations. Bolt's lyrics, when you can hear them above the orchestrations, sound witty. Callow's Falstaff is a suitably earth-larding figure with an aura of decayed grandeur. Dame Judi's Mistress Quickly, equipped with a backstory from the Boar's Head scenes in Henry IV, is also a genuine delight. The talented Paul Englishby is, in fact, only the latest in a long line of composers drawn to Shakespeare's comedy…. It is well-constructed, deals with the ritual humiliation of Falstaff and contrasts the predicaments of aged lust with the promise of young love.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent – “There's a point early on in this musical when Judi Dench, as the frizzy-haired Cockney housekeeper and go-between Mistress Quickly, bustles on and does a comic double-take at one of the dinky half-timbered houses that dot the set. Because it's in perspective, she is a head taller than it is and this scenic device puzzles her. For some members of the audience, though, there will be another less funny dimension to this theatrical in-joke, for Dench is also much bigger than the material in this well-meaning but obdurately uninspired piece…. Unfortunately, almost everything about this venture (where Fifties New Look meets olde worlde Jacobean) feels ersatz and a poor replacement for the real thing…. There isn't an atom of originality in any of it and a woeful lack of polish in the execution. Simon Callow as Falstaff is a plucky substitute for the glorious Desmond Barrit… I’m afraid to say, though, that his booming heartiness kept putting me in mind of a slightly brainier Brian Blessed, while Brendan O'Hea's leather-clad swaggering Pistol is a dead ringer for Russell Brand.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (3 stars) – “Anybody who feared that the RSC’s year-long Bardathon might become a respectful trot or worthy trudge through tragedies, histories and earnestly interpreted comedies certainly got their answer last night…. It’s good seasonal stuff and extremely well cast…. Judi Dench as Mistress Quickly… gives a performance that’s simultaneously warm, mischievous and, helped by a frizz of red hair, just a bit slatternly. Maybe Callow misses the lechery Shakespeare wanted; but his portrait of raddled gentility is beautifully judged and he makes the most of the comic moments… McGowan rises to the comic challenge, too…. And who can complain when that fine comic actor Simon Trinder, playing the gormless swain Slender, is swigging back booze in an energetically sung, cheerily choreographed, thoroughly Christmassy salute to sack?”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “Do you remember those end-of-year school plays, when the teachers joined in with the pupils and everyone was supposed to let their hair down and have the most tremendous fun? Embarrassing, weren't they? Well, the RSC's Christmas treat… is often agonisingly reminiscent of such occasions. Everyone is absolutely determined to be jolly…. And just to prove this is a genuinely gold-plated and copper-bottomed occasion, Judi Dench, the beloved and normally frightfully strict headmistress of British theatre, is on hand to show us just what a sport she is by playing Mistress Quickly…. Yet the cruel truth is that the show proves more exhausting than entertaining. Everyone seems to be trying that little bit too hard, the performances are almost all slightly but fatally overdrawn, and the result is that for long sections of the evening those on stage seem to be having far more fun than the audience…. A huge amount of effort has gone into a show that somehow fails to achieve comic lift-off.”

  • Sheridan Morley in the Daily Express – “This is Stratford’s first home-grown musical in a very long time, and Judi Dench’s first in the decade since A Little Night Music at the National…. True, it starts out looking just like an old 1950s Palladium pantomime, complete with villagers frolicking on the (in this case Windsor) town square, as represented by some miniature Tudor-beamed houses which Dench’s Mistress Quickly eyes in passing with hilarious disapproval…. What… composer Paul Englishby and his lyricist Ranjit Bolt have gorgeously and surprisingly come up with here is not a throwback to D’0yly Carte or vintage Broadway, but instead a lyrical echo of the post-war Julian Slade or Vivian Ellis, writing in the golden days when the English stage musical was not afraid to be just that. The score here is gentle, wistful, romantic, elegant: it doesn’t scream at you, and it perfectly suits a brilliantly confident production by Gregory Doran…. I for one can’t wait for the CD of what is a superb Christmas present to us all from the RSC.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell