Desmond Barrit was a magnificent Falstaff for the RSC back in 2000 when Michael Attenborough staged the two parts of Henry IV and he garnered yet more rapturous raves when he reprised the role for Peter Hall last year in Bath.
Any fear that this lovely actor might have been tempted to hang up his padded girth for good after that is joyously dispelled now by Phillip Breen's entertaining – if sometimes a touch laboured – main-stage modern-dress revival at Stratford of The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The way the play anticipates contemporary sitcom with its social-climbing middle-classes, its conviction that foreigners are, by definition, idiotic, and its slapstick farce triggered by a frantically jealous husband, is winningly alive.
There are occasions, though, when the show tries too hard on this front. For example, a sub-plot hoax about the imminent arrival of a Teutonic duke results in the stubbornly unfunny idea of a German “theme”-night at the Garter Inn. And with a three-hour running time, it can feel a rather exhausting as well as an exhaustive account of the piece.
But if Anita Dobson becomes faintly monotonous with the mechanical bustle of her Mistress Quickly, the rest of the principals are on terrific form. Alexandra Gilbreath's nouveau riche, impishly naughty Alice Ford is amusingly contrasted with the solid “county” quality of Sylvestra Le Touzel's Meg Page.
The latter gets a big laugh when she delivers the line about her husband -“He's as far from jealousy as I am from giving him cause” - with an air of plaintive regret, almost as though she envies Alice her barmily suspicious, but at least attentive, spouse.
John Ramm is hilariously obsessive and off-the-scent as Ford, scrabbling like a frantic dog in the laundry basket and obliviously ranting on with a dirty bra in hand when he fails to find his quarry.
Falstaff's potty belief that he is attractive to women is conveyed in the hysterical, groin-rubbing solemnity with which Barrit grooves to a raunchy Marvin Gaye record in an attempt to seduce Alice.
But his splendid performance manages to be both side-splitting about the misplaced conceit and the repeated ignominious discomfitures while projecting the sense of a strangely unhumiliated hinterland. He may lie down as if in his grave at the end, but the puff of cigar smoke that rises from it suggests that it's too early for wreaths.
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