After completing its run at the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme, the Northern Broadsides’ production of The Merry Wives has returned home to the Viaduct Theatre, Halifax. The cast are clearly at ease down in the stony caverns of the Viaduct, a setting which may fall into the backdrop in the first half of the performance, but adds an ethereal tone to the closing scenes.
With ‘Windsor’ struck from the title, The Merry Wives is transported to the world of tennis whites, golf trips and flat caps in a 1920s northern country club. The New Vic costume department must be applauded for the detailed and quirky costuming and props where each character was perfectly re-imagined for the new setting.
Barrie Rutter, who we interviewed in January, is both director and the pot-bellied, waddling Falstaff. It is his third time playing the carnivalesque knight, and he gives the role a more refined and less wild touch, making the character’s occasional lapses into the absurd more hilarious, although at times somewhat restrained.
The comedic performances were consistently nimble and playful, though benefited from an audience who apparently already knew all the jokes. It’s not quite the romp one would hope for, with the pacing and occasional stiffness weighing down the text, never letting it fully lift off the ground despite some individual stellar performances. Any scene between the merry wives themselves, Mistress Page (Nicola Sanderson) and Mistress Ford (Becky Hindley) was a delight. Helen Sheals’ Mistress Quickly, Andrew Vincent’s jealous Frank Ford and the dandyish Jos Vantyler as Abraham Slender must all be noted for their fresh and energetic performances.
The final scenes of the production, which had the Northern Broadsides’ unique musical touch, brought the performance into another realm of masked fairies in silken pyjamas and Rutter’s Falstaff head-to-toe in prep school sports gear, including hockey and lacrosse sticks to replace antlers. Where the cast had had difficulty breaking free from the text in earlier scenes, these magical and other-worldly closing moments left the performance on a high note.
The Merry Wives continues its run at The Viaduct Theatre in Halifax until Saturday, before continuing its tour to locations including The Rose Kingston, The West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, and the York Theatre Royal. You can see a full list of tour dates and information on purchasing tickets here.