First Night: The Merry Wives Of Windsor, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

Dame Judi towers above this woeful musical venture
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The Independent Culture

There's a point early on in this musical when Judi Dench, as the frizzy-haired Cockney housekeeper and go-between Mistress Quickly, bustles on and does a comic double-take at one of the dinky half-timbered houses that dot the set. Because it's in perspective, she is a head taller than it is and this scenic device puzzles her.

For some members of the audience, though, there will be another less funny dimension to this theatrical in-joke, for Dench is also much bigger than the material in this well-meaning but obdurately uninspired piece, which has a score by Paul Englishby and lyrics by Ranjit Bolt.

Englishby has written some excellent incidental music for earlier productions by the director of the show, Gregory Doran. They include Sejanus and All's Well that Ends Well, the bittersweet Shakespearean tragicomedy that brought Dame Judi back to Stratford two winters ago to play the wise and wry Countess. She returns to take part in what is supposed to be the Christmas treat of the Complete Works Festival.

Unfortunately, almost everything about this venture (where Fifties New Look meets olde worlde Jacobean) feels ersatz and a poor replacement for the real thing. The songs themselves range from sub-Gilbert and Sullivan (in the through-sung farcical ensemble sequence where Haydn Gwynne's Mistress Page and Alexandra Gilbreath's Mistress Ford trick Falstaff into the laundry basket which is taken out and tipped in the Thames), to a whooping hillbilly hoe-down in the "Merry Wives" number, to a tango for men, Hollywood tap, and Lloyd-Webber-like ballads for the young love-interest (Martin Crewes and Scarlett Strallen). There isn't an atom of originality in any of it and a woeful lack of polish in the execution.

Simon Callow as Falstaff is a plucky substitute for the glorious Desmond Barrit who had to withdraw because of a foot infection. I'm afraid to say, though, that his booming heartiness kept putting me in mind of a slightly brainier Brian Blessed, while Brendan O'Hea's leather-clad swaggering Pistol is a dead ringer for Russell Brand. Ironically, given that the obsessively jealous Ford is played by Alastair McGowan, it is other members of the cast who occasionally make you feel that the RSC has teamed up with Stars in their Eyes.

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