Review: The Merry Wives of Windsor by Water Lane Theatre Company in Bishop’s Stortford
Following its sell-out performances of Murdered to Death at South Mills Arts in March, Water Lane Theatre Company returned to the Monastery Garden last week with a jovial, vibrant and wholly unconventional rendition of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.
No stranger to pushing boundaries with Shakespeare productions, Water Lane, which this autumn celebrates its 90th anniversary, really thought out of the box with this one.
Never before have so many fabulous Hawaiian shirts gathered together in one place. Set on a Windsor campsite, of all places, there was a real visual melting pot of characters portrayed.
From lads on tour (with a bespoke “Falstaff 88” England football shirt) and gentrified country tweeds to office wear and cloaked, Venetian masque-wearing, disco wigged and glowstick-wielding fairies, everyone was represented in this production.
Regular Water Lane supporters also will have spotted a nod to previous productions, including a yellow Hi-de-Hi! jacket and overt ‘Allo ‘Allo accents (not to mention trench coats, string onions and berets).
Cleverly directed by Andy Roberts, the staging was straightforward, consisting of teak garden chairs, a couple of tents and a windbreaker. The sound was well timed and amusingly cheesy, and the on-site tea tent in aid of Isabel Hospice was a welcome touch.
In line with a true British summer, the cast and audience at Sunday’s matinee faced glorious sunshine interspersed with heavy clouds and strong, fairly chilly winds, ricocheting the sounds of rustling trees and planes overhead around the grounds.
But the cast were undeterred, despite the loss of a gazebo (an annual event, I’m told) and fought valiantly to ensure voices carried and lines were heard.
And what a lot of lines there were! Despite a couple of prompts, the cast did well with the challenging language and conveyed the two concurrent plots and meaning clearly. They were aided by a fair amount of ad-libbing, which made it more accessible to the audience and added to the farcical nature.
Longer monologues met interjections of “Aren’t you done yet?” and more obscure Shakespearean terms were met with shared shrugs and knowing looks with the audience. Although the audience interactions were encroaching on panto territory, this is of course authentic to performances of its time.
It was a production embedded with self-proclaimed dodgy accents (special mention here to Adam Miles and his comedically shocking Welsh/Cockney) and the fourth wall was broken regularly. But it wasn’t cringeworthy and not taking it too seriously really made it a success.
The audience were with the cast, having a laugh and enjoying the sense of fun, and no one was too critical. That’s not to say there wasn’t some fantastic acting.
With an 18-strong cast it’s not possible to mention everyone. That said, there sincerely wasn’t a weak link. The support roles did their jobs well, and there were several newcomers to the society who gave really strong performances.
Richard Pink and Granville Rush reprised their 2009 Water Lane roles as Falstaff and Frank Ford, respectively, with great passion. Rush’s fit of cuckolded jealousy deserves a special mention, as does Pink’s ability to engage the audience and bring the comedy to life, whether it be from behind a windbreaker or from within a sleeping bag. Great performances from both.
S-J Pyne and Amanda Green gave animated renditions as the scheming Merry Wives, and John Bell gave an enjoyable rendition of the extremely “French” Dr Caius (see ‘Allo ‘Allo mention above).
Justice Shallow (Penny Reeves), the determined match-making, tweed-wearing aunt, and Abraham Slender (Greg Hill), the romantically misled nephew who didn’t stand a chance, brought a comedic touch to the sub-plot, as did Mistress Quickly (Sally Fenton) and her clipboard and the Host of the Camp (Megan Rensch), complete with the aforementioned Hi-de-Hi! jacket and bottle of beer.
All in all, it was fun. Yes, there was over-the-top smut, a pillow fight in the absence of swords, much sloshing of tankards and a confident dance solo with a feather duster.
Yes, it was pretty bonkers, and it certainly wasn’t perfect, but it was full of well-placed enthusiasm, highly enjoyable and ultimately a great way to spend a summer afternoon.