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In no one way is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new musical Merry Wives of Windsor good enough – not as an account of the play, not as a musical – and yet somehow it pushes through into depth, complexity, loveability. Paul Englishby’s music ranges from Carry On to country. Each time a new number starts, it usually feels wrong, but he’s such a craftsman that soon you feel the point of each musical idea. Ranjit Bolt’s lyrics are clever along post-Shakespearian lines (“Without a cup of sherry-sack, the centre cannot hold”).
How could it be better? Any teenager could count the ways. Gregory Doran, directing, shoves in too much extraneous comic business. Englishby’s music demands more than this cast can quite deliver. The famous crack in Judi Dench’s voice has never gaped wider than in her Mistress Quickly: she is so great an artist that her vocal limitations become a touching part of her humanity, but that’s not how you feel throughout.
Yet I’ve known conventional accounts of the play more lightweight than this. It truly creates a multi-dimensional world where even the most cartoonish characters have their self-awareness, their vulnerability, their sweetness. Except, alas, Simon Callow, whose Falstaff is all surface. Marvellous diction, lots of belly, but no inwardness.
Elsewhere, however, the casting is deluxe. Haydn Gwynne and Alexandra Gilbreath are delectably merry, Alistair McGowan is a Ford of Basil Fawlty fatuity and rages, and Paul Chahidi is so full-hearted a clown that he brings off the silliness of Dr Caius. Simon Trinder gives the truest star performance as a fey, young, yellow-bearded Slender: feckless, forlorn, artless, heart-catching, riveting in every movement, every utterance. And Judi Dench, the biggest star, proves herself the truest team player in the quality of her attention to others. This Falstaff, “this honeysuckle villain”, is never more touching, more life-enhancing, than when he’s offstage and she’s singing about him.
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