Feeling a bit low? Lost your mojo? Then I recommend you catch a cheery performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor by the Creative Cow touring rep theatre company. A good test of an acting troupe is how well it responds to a poor turnout in a matinee. This troupe was faced with a poor turnout at a matinee, with an audience of pensioners, in Peterborough on a rainy Wednesday in October. Not particularly promising. However, from Jack Hulland's first chuckle as the corpulent Falstaff you knew the players were up for it. Indeed what proceeded was one of most enjoyable performances I have ever seen.
Before the lights dimmed and that first chuckle echoed around the theatre, a nice old lady three empty seats away - who obviously knew her onions - announced that she had seen the production in Chesterfield, and pronounced it "brilliant." Chatting with director, Amanda Knott, after that performance, she had asked the whereabouts of the next date - and so she was here, having traveled to Peterborough on her own to see it again, walking stick and all. Any play attracting septuagenarian groupies is a very good sign.
The old lady was right. This is one of those rare productions where everybody involved in the play is terrific. Merry Wives is a tricky play to pull off. Too little verve, and much of the fun is lost. Too much, and it easily slips into clownish pastiche. The Creative Cow ensemble pitched it just right, imbuing the characters with light authenticity, without rendering them cartoonish.
If you have not seen Merry Wives, it is a sexy sit com, where events orbit around the colossal figure of Sir John Falstaff. The old soldier had previously appeared in Henry IV pts 1 and 2, as the young Prince Hal's bawdy drinking associate at the Boar's Head Tavern. There he might have rested on his laurels but for Queen Elizabeth, who loved the character so much she ordered a full revival. In Merry Wives, Falstaff roars back to life in glorious fashion for two riotous hours, but the laughs echoing at the end are the last we hear from him. In the later play when Prince Hal is all grown up as Henry V, Shakespeare kills Falstaff off, albeit with all due mourning and honours. The canny Bard was obviously pre-empting any clamour for a Falstaff IV, even by royal appointment.
The Bard was probably right to do this, as Sir John Falstaff is almost too dominant, too popular . . . too much. Whereas everybody enjoys the jolly bawd, the play is much more than him, and the themes are serious. Merry Wives is actually an incisive examination of the power of women - a feminist farce, critiquing male power, arrogance and stupidity. No wonder the ball-busting Virgin Queen loved it so much. Falstaff and female empowerment? This must have ticked all of Bess's boxes.
The tricky bit for a director is to allow Falstaff free rein, without him dominating the proceedings and obscuring the themes. Jack Hulland's performance as the Knight was perfectly pitched in this respect- big chested, big stomached, big voiced, but without going over the top. Perhaps the best aspect of Hulland's performance was the way he laced the bravado with vulnerability, and hinted at a rather lost person inside. Hulland thus cleverly imbued this roaring braggart with a heart, so much that I wish the Bard had not called time on him. Falstaff IV would be something worth watching - if played by Jack Hulland.
The other actors were wonderful in different ways. Katherine Senior gave a superb, sharp, performance throughout. With a West Country burr, she played Mistress Quickly with wit, wisdom and mischief. As her other character, Mistress Page (one of the two main Merry Wives), she played a middle class, clever woman with such energy and fun, I smiled all the way through it. Katherine Senior is a very talented actress, and it was a thrill to sit through a performance of this calibre.
The other Merry Wife, Mistress Ford, was played beautifully by the Maia Gibbons. Ms Gibbons recently tweeted how excited she was to be performing in this play, and this enthusiasm shone through the cheerful machinations. With every scheme and giggle Maia Gibbons brought sunshine to a rainy day in Peterborough. As with Katherine Senior, she played two roles, and her portrayal of the young, headstrong Anne Page defying her parents in love - and succeeding - was terrific.
With Falstaff and two clever Merry Wives on stage, you would think that the other actors might not get a look in. Far from it, Sean Aydon played not one but four roles, and did so entertainingly in each case. I particularly liked his rendition of Simple, which showed great comic timing, with little knowing glances at the audience. The two husbands were played by Jack Wharrier as Ford, and Jonathan Parish as Page. Both were excellent, with Jack Wharrier eliciting spontaneous applause for his engaging, quick-witted delivery.
As you may have noticed, I only write about performances I actually like. Creative Cow's Merry Wives is among the best I have ever seen. Inventive, funny, skillful, incisive, Amanda Knox and the fine actors deserve your support, and I recommend you catch one of the remaining shows if you can. When Katherine Senior flicks you a mischievous glance, you will smile and thank your lucky stars you did.
The Merry Wives of Windsor can still be seen at the following venues:
Tues 15th October, Rosemary Branch Theatre, Islington, 7.30pm
Thurs 17 -Sat 19th October, Guildford's Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Thurs at 7:45pm
Fri and Sat at 8.00pm, (Mats Thurs and Sat at 2:30pm)
Thurs 24th - Sat 26th October, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne
7.45pm (mat weds & sat 2.30pm)
Tues 29th October, Buxton Opera House, 7:30pm
Thurs 31st October- Sat 2nd November
New Theatre, Exeter, 7.30pm (sat mat 2pm)
Sun 3rd November
The Regal Theatre, Minehead 7:30pm