THEATRE / Whitby wives: Paul Taylor reviews Northern Broadsides' Merry Wives of Windsor

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The Independent Culture
The Fat Woman of Brentford - the witch whose identity Falstaff is forced to assume as he tries to sneak out from under the nose of an irate husband - becomes the Fat Woman of Whitby in Barrie Rutter's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Brentford is much too poncy and southern for Northern Broadsides, a company dedicated to putting its accent where its name is. But what about Windsor? - that's not exactly Sheffield either. You may wonder, listening to the wonderfully forthright northern tones in this patchy production, why Rutter didn't go the whole hog and rename the piece, say, The Merry Wives of Scunthorpe?

The irony is that Shakespeare couldn't always resist taking the mickey out of regional and foreign accents. Indeed, with this play, the company is compelled to relax its vocal regulations so that Sir Hugh Evans (Robert Putt), can be mocked for his Welsh lilt (in the Windsor Forest scene, Falstaff almost hears through his disguise: 'Heavens defend me from that Welsh fairy,' the fat knight mutters, 'lest he transform me to a piece of cheese]'); and, of course, the French physician, Dr Caius (Lawrence Evans), has to expostulate like an affected, silly Frog, though his favourite oath 'By Gar]' has mutated to something suspiciously like a frank Yorkshire 'Bugger]' by the end.

Acted in a largely bare black box of a space in an erratic medley of clothes (shell-suits to Seventies dude-gear), the production has an appealing unforced bluntness that would work more effectively in circumstances other than on a large raised proscenium stage. The direct, on-the-level performances feel slightly contradicted by the elevated position of the actors. Not that anything could muffle the impact of the excellent Polly Hemingway and Elizabeth Estensen as Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, the propositioned wives who give Falstaff his come-uppance three times in succession. Played here as formidable exemplars of down-to-earth northern womanhood (you wouldn't risk criticising either's hotpot), they also exude, during their high-spirited mischief-making, a fundamental good humour and a sense of proportion which reassure you that their plots will not get out of hand.

As the would-be philanderer Falstaff, Barrie Rutter sports the sort of jutting-out belly that looks like a free and highly effective form of contraception. Unfortunately, his stomach is the only thing that is larger-than-life in Rutter's portrayal of the fat knight, which is all paunch and little punch. If the character's conception of himself fails to seem puffed-up and outsize, then the indignities to which he is subjected can't register as comically. Rutter has a highly likeable stage presence, but there aren't enough layers to this Falstaff and his performance here makes you feel he should choose between acting or directing in future productions. The beautifully spare, magical ending in Windsor Forest best shows his talents at the latter.

Lyric Hammersmith, London, to 15 Jan 1994 (081-741 2311)