"Hand-jive with the Merry Wives"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 28/03/19

From the opening twangs of Duane Eddy (swoon) by way of polka dots, frothy petticoats (I rinsed mine in sugar water) and the sedentary joys of the hand jive, Exeter’s Cygnet Theatre take us back to the late Fifties with their terrific production of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’. Then we were reeling from the Suez Crisis – today the need for an antidote to our baffling times is greater than ever. So whether you are singing, signing, sighing or marching, make sure you catch this infectiously joyful show either at the Cygnet Theatre or when it tours the West Country as an open air performance in July.

Having never seen this play until 2017, it is fast rocketing to the top of my favourites list. If Shakespeare were alive now, his middle-class Merry Wives and their accomplice/go-between Mistress Quickly would star in a long running sit-com, running rings round lecherous, avaricious suitors (Sir John Falstaff), jealous husbands (Mr Ford) and a bevy of utterly gormless blokes – the latter happily balanced by the affable, likeable, fun-loving Mr Page.

All praise to Director Amanda Knott for taking a scalpel to the otherwise rambling, convoluted script. (Sorry, Shakespeare.) Whether it’s seniority or laziness or a deplorable lack of stamina I don’t know, but my capacity for three hours plus of almost anything has dwindled alarmingly. With confident direction and a cast of energetic, ebullient actors, Amanda Knott presents her audience with a thoroughly enjoyable event which I fully intend to watch again.

It’s always magical to see a cast of accomplished actors relishing their characters, and throwing themselves unreservedly into mayhem. Thora Pedersen, Roxanne Eastaugh and Harriet Birks all share the roles of Mistress Ford, Mistress Page and Anne Page – I think in that order on the night I saw the play. All three are an absolute delight. As the wives flounce on, accompanied by snacks that proved a little pesky at times, methinks, their friendship and conniving win us over immediately. There is added pleasure, having watched the wives run rings round the men, to see Anne Page take a leaf from their book and trick her parents by marrying Fenton (Edward Watterson) the man of her choice, not theirs.

All the plotting is facilitated by Rosalind Williams’ wonderful Mistress Quickly by way of Mrs Overall. Whoever selected her working costume – crossover pinny – and going-calling outfit (oh, that hat) deserves a round of applause. I was reminded of the phrase ‘All fur coat and no knickers…’ Armed only with a mop, sly innuendo and a ferocious pink handbag, she is a match for all of them. Poor Falstaff (Oliver Heaton) doesn’t stand a chance. Whether stuffed in with the dirty laundry, dressed up as a witchy old aunt, or attacked by fairies, Oliver Heaton skilfully walks the fine line between the audience deciding the character is just a gross old lecher, or finding some compassion for his beleaguered state. Or, indeed, both. It is most satisfying for an audience to be presented with such complexity of character, rather than a cardboard cut-out. By the same token, in his three roles – Ford, Brook and Fenton – Edward Watterson offers complexity and contrast with aplomb. The same is true of Mark Shorto with his four characters – Pistol, Peter Simple, Page and John, all effected by simple costume changes and careful delineation.

The fairies were charming, as, aided and abetted by the grown-ups, they pranced on beautifully before teasing poor Falstaff almost mercilessly. I say ‘almost’ with relief – I don’t think modern play-goers have as much relish for out and out meanness as might have once been the case.

The set was simple and effective, and the sound and lighting, in the capable hands of Alistair Ganley, served the production well.

Sheer pleasure. Don’t miss it!

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