Monday, July 23, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews Merry Wives: the Musical ... and reviews the reviews

From my reviewblog, written in 2006....
Unlike some politicians, before proceeding further, I feel I should declare a personal interest. In common with a good proportion of the British public, I am devoted to Dame Judi Dench. She has been my favourite actress ever since I first saw her Portia in The Merchant of Venice at Stratford in the early 1970's.

Apart from the intelligence and insight of her characterisation, she has a beautiful voice. Listening to her speak, sing or even laugh is pleasurable.

Over the years I have enjoyed her in musicals starting with Sally Bowles in Cabaret and latterly Desiree in A Little Night Music and in plays ranging from Absolute Hell to her comedy master class in Hay Fever. In every one Dame Judi illuminated the stage and wove a special magic.

You can imagine that I was pleased to obtain tickets for Greg Doran’s production of Merry Wives: The Musical shortly after its opening in the main house at Stratford before Christmas.

Visiting the RSC is interesting nowadays. The crowded foyer reminded me of Lourdes. I don’t think I have ever seen such an assembly of the elderly - not that I can talk! Perhaps they anticipated that sight of the blessed Dame during Advent would have miraculous properties.

I hear that in Leeds many a pensioner has been able to dismantle the stair-lift after seeing Carol Vorderman during Lent; nowadays such is the true power of celebrity.

The few below retirement age seemed to be made up of teachers and social workers: the look was unsmiling and the mot du jour, earnest.

Merry Wives: the Musical is such a huge undertaking that it’s difficult to know quite where to begin. One’s view of the success of the production depends entirely on the marriage of a quirky and complex comedy with the musical form.

The brilliant Greg Doran adapted the play and made judicious decisions on cutting sundry sub plots. He also magnified the role of Mistress Quickly. This simplification and lightening works well without amounting to dumbing down.

I also had no problem with the musical format. The transitions to song and dance are never unduly strained or silly.

From the outset it is plain that the composer Paul Englishby has painted from an enormous palette and produces an eclectic score. Depending on one’s stance, this could be regarded as pastiche, homage or simple referencing of styles which ranged from Lloyd Webber to Weill and from hoe-down to madrigal.

I liked the hoe-down number where pots and pans are beaten with gusto, just as they were in the show-stopping I Got Rhythm in Crazy for You.

Cutting to the chase, the first of my two criticisms of the production relates to the score. Not enough of the tunes were sufficiently memorable or whistle-able to make this a great musical. They were adequate for a good entertainment but a musical can only take wings when the music transports.

My second concern is Ranjit Bolt’s lyrics, as exemplified by the wives' oft-quoted description of Falstaff: “He stinks of urine/And thinks he’s so alluring”. This wasn’t quite Sondheim and didn’t quite do it for me, even though I was willing to be amused.

The designer, Stephen Brimson Lewis delivers the goods across the board with Tudorbethan sets which were striking and upbeat. There is a lovely moment when Judi Dench halts upstage - destroying the fake perspective - and peers with bafflement at the model half-timbered houses. The audience roared.

There is also hilarity when Simon Callow as Falstaff takes a bath in his fat suit echoing Bubbles de Vere in Little Britain. Falstaff also gets to lark around in hampers and get covered in soot from the chimney. It’s pantomime with tongue firmly in cheek and better for it.

The range of costumes is also appealing. I particularly liked the chic 1590’s meets 1950’s ensembles of the wives and the contemporary references in the costumes for Bardolph, Nym and Pistol who resembled Russ Abbott’s Scots Wee Jimmy, Kenny Everett’s eternal punk , Sid Snot and a black-clad Russell Brand.

These adroitly played caricatures were fun. They each owed something to the tradition of topical references in panto – but why not?

As one would expect from the RSC, the show featured numerous excellent individual performances. Simon Trinder was outstanding as the gormless love-struck Slender and must go on to even greater things. Paul Chahidi and Ian Hughes were extremely funny as Dr Caius and Sir Hugh Evans with marvellous accents and physical business: ‘Allo ‘Allo meets Hi de Hi.

With hats and handbags to the fore, Haydn Gwynne and Alexandra Gilbreath were convincingly pert as the elegant and comely wives, whilst Alistair McGowan handled his comic scenes as the jealous husband coherently and well.

Like many, I had been looking forward to Desmond Barrit’s Falstaff. I shall never forget his Malvolio at the RSC which managed heartrending pathos and hilarity in quick succession. He held the audience in the palm of his hand with some Charles Laughton and a touch of Ken Dodd.

I understand that Simon Callow bravely took on the role of Falstaff relatively late-on. He delivered the part with great authority and presence and handled the knockabout expertly.

Some difficult songs were delivered with aplomb. His bluff and blustering Falstaff had gravitas and was presented con brio. His performance was that of a very good actor at work but lacked genuine pathos. Even in his ultimate humiliation the audience was never really forced to care.

As ever, Judi Dench was a delight. Her slatternly Mistress Quickly, all red hair and racy past, was saucy and touching in equal measure.

For me the highlight of the show was her poignant rendition of Honeysuckle Villain when considering whether to reignite old flames with Falstaff. Her tavern-smoked voice conveyed all the world-weariness and regret of a lifetime. It was moving, wistful and so utterly convincing that one was brought back to earth with a bump when she then waltzed off arm-in-arm with young Pistol instead.

Dame Judi also astonished during another number by appearing to execute several very athletic somersaults across the stage. At the critical moment, however, the acrobat’s wig slipped, somewhat spoiling the illusion. Dame Judi saved the gag and brought the house down by “returning” to the stage adjusting her own wig: what a pro!

My other favourite comic moment - which says much of my sense of humour - is during the fairy sequence when a small child with a pumpkin on his head walked into the set.

On reading some of the reviews, I did wonder if I had seen the same production. Several critics were scathing about the quality of singing. Perhaps on press night nerves took hold, but a day or so later the singing was solid; Alistair McGowan did not “shout” nor was Simon Callow out of tune.

To call it “laugh free” was just plain wrong. Several critics also found the simplified characters and range of styles and references difficult. They appeared embarrassed by the energetic jollity and hectic frivolity of the production. Basically, they need to lighten up and be more prepared to be entertained. It certainly wasn’t Les Mis but then it didn’t set out to be.

So what was my conclusion about Merry Wives: the Musical? It was a happy pre-Christmas evening. In my view Shakespeare’s plays, especially the comedies, deserve to be treated with respect but not reverence. In putting this piece together, Greg Doran certainly showed respect. The cutting was judicious, sets and costumes witty and the individual and ensemble performances of a high order. As ever, Dame Judi Dench was a joy.

Many of the diverse range of songs, however, were not sufficiently memorable and a more comic, less “actory” Falstaff might have lifted the show to greater heights. All in all Merry Wives: the Entertainment might have been more apt.

Written in December 2006

Merry Wives: The Musical, RSC Stratford until 10th February 2007

*this review also appeared in Birmingham 13

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