Review: Merry Wives, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme

“When night dogs run, all sorts of deer are chased” – and what a selection of beasts strut about the stage to prove the point: from randy French doctor, conniving Welsh parson, socially ambitious businessman, insanely jealous husband, scheming magistrate and devious landlord all the way to predator-in-chief Falstaff and his trio of roguish hangers-on.

Review: Merry Wives, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme

L-R: Nicola Sanderson, Barrie Rutter and Becky Hindley. Pic: Nobby Clark

There’s not much of the poetic nor the profound in their antics, making this one of Shakespeare’s lightest plays. But there is a great deal of verbal and physical humour, making it one of his most ludicrously entertaining.

Falstaff sees the simultaneous seduction of Mistresses Ford and Page as a way out of his pecuniary embarrassment. Being honest married ladies they want nothing of it. But being also merry wives,  they collude in pretending to respond to his advances while laying traps that will expose him to a far more painful embarrassment.

Meanwhile, the chief subplot sees various suitors pursue the hand of the Mistress Page’s strong-willed daughter.

The males blunder along with varying degrees of bluster and bombast while the females scheme with a delightful whimsy and lightness of touch. Only in their scenes does the play come close to subtlety.

Think of it as farce, rather than Shakespeare. Then you’ll be more patient with the seeming labyrinthine set-up and enjoy the very entertaining rewards of the second act and the beautifully executed denouement in the dead of night at the legendary Hearne’s Oak.

This is a joint production between The New Vic and Northern Broadsides, whose Barrie Rutter leads and directs -- and who is clearly enjoying himself enormously.

He’s set the action in Edwardian England, which works well, and taken literally the line “We’ll have some sport with this old fat fellow”, making excellent use of tennis racquets, lacrosse sticks and cricket pads alongside the outsize laundry basket full of dirty linen.

And in deference to the company’s origins and accents he’s dropped all mention of Windsor (we hear instead about “The fat witch of Ilkley” and a marriage in Skipton.)

Those familiar with Northern Broadsides’ performances at The New Vic will find the company’s much-praised musical talent less on show than usual, though effectively used in the finale. But they certainly won’t miss any of the company’s verve, energy, noise, and… well… merriment.

Runs until Saturday, February 27.

by John Hargreaves

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