Theatre: Smiles of a summer night

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The Independent Culture



THE OLD man lumbering round a tree with a pair of horns on his head has definitely seen better days. In Henry IV Parts One and Two he was a subversive Bacchanalian force: downing pints with princes, infuriating the authorities, and punning provocatively as he read absurd and obscene double meanings into their official pronouncements. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, however, he seems to have lost his zap: the Bacchic influence is still evident, but only in the beer-gut, the bulging red nose and the desperate quest for sex. Before, he bombarded others with jokes, now he is himself the joke. It is a sorry state of affairs for Sir John Falstaff.

Robert Lang's distinguished career has encompassed the roles of Sir Toby Belch and Bottom, so he is no stranger to the drunkenness and asinine capers involved in playing Falstaff. In Alan Strachan's production of The Merry Wives, his thwarted attempts to cuckold the suspicious husbands of Windsor are played out against a backdrop of brightly coloured traditional costumes that would not have been unfamiliar to Elizabeth I, who personally commissioned the play. The atmosphere is one of carnival, and Catherine Jayes' music and the light-hearted jostle of diverse comic talents in the cast add to the sense that this is a festive comedy of types.

There are plenty of sparkling performances from the cast. Lang never quite manages to embody the larger-than-life aspect of Falstaff, but still serves up several delicious comic moments - such as his robustly grumpy delivery of the line: "You may know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking." He is frequently upstaged, however, by the superlative comic acting skills of Giles Taylor as Slender, and of Paul Raffield as the jealous husband, Ford. Taylor's nerdy Elizabethan fop could well be the twin brother to Lord Percy in Blackadder, as he talks in artless malapropisms and walks across the stage as though he were holding a ping-pong ball between his buttocks.

Raffield's portrayal of a jealous husband is not dissimilar to that of an imploding pressure-cooker: and while the script makes him Falstaff's up-tight straight man, he generally ends up stealing the scenes.

Rachel Kavanaugh's Twelfth Night also taps in to the hedonistic atmosphere encouraged by the ambience of a balmy summer's evening in Regent's Park. The setting is London in the Twenties, however, an appropriately androgynous decade for the gender- bending love tangles that enmesh the cast - as evinced by Emily Hamilton's spirited embodiment of Viola. Harry Burton is very convincing as the darkly soulful and attractive Orsino, but perhaps inevitably his and Hamilton's strong performances lose out to the play's glorious comedy. Peter Forbes is compelling as the reeling, vomiting, Sir Toby Belch, Christopher Goodwin is movingly comic as the acidly angular Malvolio, and Paul Raffield once more steals scenes as the flailing Sir Andrew Aguecheek. The inclement English summer may demand thermal vests to allow full concentration, but otherwise these are two evenings of pure pleasure.

Booking: 0171-486 2431/1933