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The Merry Wives of Windsor review at Stoke Park Railway, Guildford – ‘cheerful open-air production’

Sarah Gobran, Peter Gordon and Emma Fenney in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Photo: Matt Pereira
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Probably history’s first comedy spin-off, Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor is among his lightest, daftest plays, but that doesn’t mean it has to be completely frivolous. Closing its 14th outdoor season, Guildford Shakespeare Company’s version is a smartly played farce with a relatable heart.

Sarah Gobran and Emma Fenney set the tone as witty wives Page and Ford, defusing the lust and possessiveness of the men around them with good humour and gales of laughter.

Peter Gordon’s Falstaff is a harmless, blustery braggart, markedly less sleazy than in most interpretations. But it’s James Burton’s turn as suspicious husband Frank Ford that steals the show, slipping from distrustful to dangerously erratic as his jealousy takes hold, then properly humbled once he learns the truth.

Transposed to the 1970s, director Caroline Devlin’s production is energetic and colourful, with short scenes rattling by like the model railway train that transports her cast around the space. Though a last-minute burst of promenading feels needlessly disruptive, it pays off in a ludicrous, utterly anarchic fairy-haunting sequence set to the Settlers’ eerie folk song The Lightning Tree.

Designed by Neil Irish, the set is ghastly in the best, period-appropriate way, a clash of mustard and terracotta, patterned wallpaper, and spider plants. The costumes, too, are lovingly realised, all bell-bottoms and maxi dresses, paisley and leopard print. Isaac Stanmore’s likeable suitor Fenton turns up to ensure a happy ending decked out in punky military surplus gear held together with safety pins.

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Cheerful outdoor production that captures the wit and wildness of Shakespeare’s merry tale