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The Merry Wives of Windsor review at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘Shakespeare meets reality TV’

Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingly in The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Fiona Laird’s production of Shakespeare’s playful revenge comedy is less Merry Wives and more Footballers’ Wives. Set in Windsor-by-way-of-Essex, the public shaming of an insincere lecher plays out in a world where rugger boys dressed for the Henley Regatta rub up alongside women with very small and very fluffy dogs, and a manicurist on constant duty.

Falstaff (David Troughton) gets his comeuppance when Mistress Page (Rebecca Lacey) and Mistress Ford (Beth Cordingly) twig that he’s sent them, word-for-word, the same love letter. Unwilling to be made fools of, the women’s first move is to call him over for a barbecue by the pool and dispose of him in a pink wheelie bin.

The daughter of Mistress Page, Anne (Karen Fishwick) is falling in love with Fenton (Luke Newberry), who is here represented as a charming-but-daffy Disney prince, his arrivals on stage marked by a magic wand-type sound effect. He’s so head-over-heels for Anne he literally can’t stay upright, tripping over his own feet like a cartoon bunny wabbit.

Troughton embraces the buffoon role with gusto, lumbering around the stage in public school Humpty Dumpty mode with a triangular rubber codpiece flapping in the breeze. But despite his good humour as an actor, the centrepiece performers are – rightly, given the trajectory of Shakespeare’s plot – the double act of Lacey and Cordingly.

Together, they combine palpable joy at taking the mick out of their inadequate suitor with an eye-rolling attitude towards guys like this who, you imagine, they’ve seen a thousand times before. They also feel convincingly like a pair of friends who have known each other for years.

Lez Brotherston’s set design contains obvious parallels with the ones he has previously created for Matthew Bourne’s contemporary remixes of traditional ballets. This time, the corrupted fairytale aesthetic takes the form of mock-Tudor houses subtly slapped with AA Rosette stickers. A ‘residents only’ parking sign is plonked next to a cast iron lamppost.

It’s olde worlde in the way a brand new shabby chic pub is olde worlde. There are also some more overtly gauche touches, like a pink velour chair that would have fitted in at the nuptials of Katie Price and Peter Andre. The costumes, meanwhile, are a clever mash-up of Elizabethan breeches and ruffs with a 1990s Country and Western vibe.

It’s consciously very silly and in parts it succeeds at being funny. But the broadness of the comedy can’t quite sustain a two-and-a-half-hour play, and at times it veers dangerously close to pantomime – especially when we get the ’Allo ’Allo-accented French doctor. It never really becomes the loving pastiche of The Only Way Is Essex it tries to be.

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Shakespeare meets reality TV in flamboyant production that skirts the edge of panto