First Night: Merry Wives Of Windsor, Shakespeare's Globe, London

Knockabout farce anticipates modern sitcom
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The Independent Culture

The reconstructed Globe has been in operation of twelve years now, but Christopher Luscombe's highly entertaining production marks the first time that the theatre has tackled The Merry Wives of Windsor. It's an odd delay because, as this exuberant outing proves, the Globe provides an ideal environment for the piece – the only Shakespearean comedy set in England and close to home for its author, too, in the charmingly funny way it depicts small-town Elizabethan life.

Given the natural advantages of the venue, Luscombe has wisely decided to keep the play in-period rather than go down the mock-Tudor route most notably taken by the Bill Alexander RSC production that converted the 1590s into the New Elizabethan age of the 1950s. At the same time, this revival is zestfully alert to how Merry Wives anticipates modern sitcom with its social climbing middle-classes, its very English belief that all foreigners are automatically idiotic and its knockabout farce involving a frantically suspicious husband who makes Basil Fawlty look about as manic as Desmond Lyman.

The beauty of the production is that it manages to be high-spirited in this regard without being heavy-handed. It doesn't reduce the play to cross between 'Allo 'Allo and Terry and June. The deliciously inventive comic business is a joy in itself but also reveals insights into character. Take the hilarious moment when Andrew Havill's madly jealous Ford scrabbles in the laundry basket in search of Falstaff. Here one of the items he unearths is a corset and the squeamish men toss this intimate garment from one to another as though it were a leper's bandage until it reaches Will Belchamber's lovely Slender who grabs it with an almost transvestite glee. Does this explain why the dandified ninny is so ridiculously unenthusiastic in his wooing of Anne Page?

Falstaff may be a diminished figure in Merry Wives, but Christopher Benjamin engagingly captures the irrepressible conceit that, even after a dunking in the Thames and a sound beating, makes him think he will be third time lucky. Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward are beautifully convincing as old friends and radiate infectious delight in their collaborative efforts to turn the tables on the fat knight. These resourceful wives even manage to pass off the hidden Falstaff's groan, when Ford kicks the laundry basket, as a sudden bout of unladylike belching.

Janet Bird's striking, simple design sends a walkway through the audience and right round the stage. The central area of this flips over to become a spruce suburban garden with a kissing seat or Herne's Oak in Windsor Great Park for the fairy revels that, presented here as a rustic Elizabethan masque, have a strange otherworldly and magical quality. Philip Bird and Gareth Armstrong are all the funnier for being understated as the language-mangling French physician and Welsh parson. My entertainment continued through the interval as I listened to a group of Germans solemnly struggling to make sense of the linguistic gags. As Basil Fawly might have said: "Don't mention the war".