Alex James: The Great Escape

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The Independent Online

When Mona, our German au pair, arrived in the summer, I asked her if there was anything she'd like to do while she was here. She wanted to see Robbie Williams in concert and eat at Jamie Oliver's restaurant, but most of allshe wanted to see Shakespeare performed in his own country.

I found it hard to believe. It seemed ridiculous that a 19-year-old would want to sit through hours of metaphor and archaic puns when she could be getting her rocks off at the Hippodrome, but it was true. I thoroughly recommend German au pairs.

I took her to Stratford to see the Royal Shakespeare Company's new adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which has been transmogrified into a musical. I haven't given Shakespeare a second thought since English O-level, but I love a musical. I've seen so many that I'm sure I must be gay.

We were excited by the time we'd bought some Maltesers. Stratford is a great venue. From the smallest local playhouse to the West End, theatres, unlike arenas and stadiums, always ooze glamour. Ancient Stratford's seasonal splendour was perfect for an afternoon in the stalls at the RSC.

I've tried to write musicals, one for Sam Mendes and one for Steven Berkoff, but as yet, they've come to nothing. I'll manage it one day, probably when my hair falls out, but it's a difficult process. Everything has to be right - songs, story, cast, costumes, choreography, direction and dazzle factor - or the whole thing's a turkey.

Merry Wives is a cracker. More often than not, adaptations are acts of vandalism on sacred works of art. All the good bits are looted, and sold for cash to an audience that has no idea that it's receiving stolen goods. Having said that, about 80 per cent of musicals are adaptations, and when they work, they're sublime.

From the moment the curtain rose, we were teleported into a better, brighter world. Shakespeare with E-numbers and sugar. It would probably appal purists, but for me it was a wonderful reintroduction to the Bard. It made me think maybe we'd got off on the wrong foot and actually had me reaching for The Complete Works by the time I got home.

It was brilliantly cast, with a mirth that went beyond any stage direction. Haydn Gwynne was mesmerising, Judi Dench sang like Marianne Faithfull, Alistair McGowan was most creditable, and Simon Callow's fat suit got a round of applause all to itself. The songs were sophisticated, but hummable. It gave me everything I need from a trip to the theatre - wit, wisdom and half-remembered snatches of magic melodies. Aphorisms flowed. It was a brilliant cocktail of sophistication and silliness. A kind of vintage champagne ice-cream float. I've tried to make those, and never got them to work either.

Mona and I were grinning all over as we dawdled around the Christmas market afterwards, munching on Salvation Army mince pies. Maybe this is how they teach Shakespeare in Germany.

a.james@independent.co.uk

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