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The Merry Wives review at New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme – ‘sprightly’

Andrew Vincent and Barrie Rutter in The Merry Wives at New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme Andrew Vincent and Barrie Rutter in The Merry Wives at New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme
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Northern Broadsides’ seventh New Vic co-production celebrates the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death by transporting this jovial revenge romp from a southern softy setting to a 1920s world of wealthy northern country clubbers – located anywhere between Whitby and Wigan – where the men go golfing while their wives play marital games.

Over the years, this is not first time the company has recast the fat woman of Brentford as the fat woman of Ilkley. Barrie Rutter’s sprightly new north-pointing account, however, sounds and looks minty fresh, mainly relying on crisp lighting, a succession of sporty props and smart period costuming to root the merry wives’ anti-Falstaff deceptions within a whirlpool of social climbers.

In his third go at playing the bloated knight, Rutter’s podgy old rogue stands apart from the nouveau riche like an upper class Victorian relic – a libidinous human fatberg waddling towards inevitable meltdown. Although there’s plenty of girth to grapple with here, you do keep hoping for more mirth to seep out.

Some general pacing issues aside, the production’s overall comedic energy is consistently on the go, most notably in the hilarious conspiratorial interplay between Nicola Sanderson and Becky Hindley as the two wives eagerly plotting humiliation over cocktails and multitasking with their own domestic crises.

Similarly, the entire cast turn out vividly drawn but believable characters, including Andrew Vincent’s absurdly jealous Frank Ford, Helen Sheals in true Hilda Baker mode as Mistress Quickly and Jos Vantyler’s stupid but poetically inclined Slender, who reminds us that even a northern ninny can have a soft centre.

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Sprightly comic revenge romp with a northern voice