The Merry Wives of Windsor has long been derided as one of Shakespeare’s weaker works. American critic Harold Bloom labelled it “Shakespeare’s only play that he himself seems to hold in contempt”.
It’s easy to see why. The plot is paper thin, the poetry unmemorable and the comedy far too reliant on coarse put-downs and exaggerated accents. It could easily be titled Carry On Falstaff.
However, this 1930s-set production directed by Elle While wisely embraces its fluffiness and proves a popular crowd-pleaser. It takes a very free hand with the text, with many of the biggest laughs coming from additions. “I don’t know me arras from me elbow,” quips Pearce Quigley’s Falstaff when assessing his hiding place from the irate husband of Mistress Ford, whom he is lamely attempting to woo alongside her conspirator Mistress Page.
The 1930s setting proves more of a stylistic than thematic choice. Notably it allows for a lively jazz score (composed by Frank Moon), culminating in a joyous flapper jig. The production also pays homage to the silent-movie era as well as vaudeville, with the ‘fairy’ taunting of Falstaff proving a riot of colour.
Quigley is supremely entertaining in the central role, his smoking jacket and straggly hair lending Falstaff an enjoyable air of loucheness. Other performances are more uneven, but standouts include Bryony Hannah’s whip-cracking Mistress Ford and Jude Owusu as her equally scheming husband. And a hat tip to Anne Odeke and Joshua Lacey for some excellent basket business.