The Merry Wives of Windsor, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Unfaithfully yours

By Rhoda Koenig
Wednesday 06 November 2002 01:00

If the play now at the Swan were The Pleasant Wives of Windsor, Rachel Kavanaugh's production would suit it down to the ground. But, though it has several amusing performances, the parts never blend into a giddy, blissful whole, as they did in the production that is my touchstone, Bill Alexander's (1987, also for the Royal Shakespeare Company). In that version, Mistresses Ford and Page became, in effect, the madcap Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance from the 1950s I Love Lucy TV show. The period here is just a few years earlier – the ladies wear a local dressmaker's interpretation of the New Look – but this stripped-down show, designed for heavy touring, is as low on atmosphere as it is on cohesiveness.

At the centre of the play, where there ought to be a bubbling well of mischief, there is a large hole – a Falstaff-sized one. Having admired Richard Cordery so much in stalwart and villainous roles I am sorry to say this, but his supposedly ardent wooer, so hot to trot that he pops round to Ford's house with less than an hour of playing time, is a dud. Dodgy when he should be jolly, mulish when he should be ebullient, he sounds, when announcing that he means to enjoy Ford's wife, like a grocer who is mildly pleased at having made a good deal with his wholesaler. When he has to be lecherous, he seems dutiful or embarrassed.

For this very tweedy show, the designer Peter McKintosh gives other characters plus-fours and racetrack checks, but Falstaff, the bohemian slob, gets a very ordinary suit. It seems impossible that this Falstaff pays court to as many ladies as we are told of, and even less likely that he sometimes succeeds.

As the object of his putative ardour, Claire Carrie is a dear little creature with a walk like a duck in high heels, and Lucy Tregear is an excellent foil as the brisk and sardonic Mistress Page. Both performances, though, feel muted, and those of the lesser characters seem to hang in the air. Greg Hicks is at first hilarious as the humourless Frenchman Dr Caius, with his curled lip, froggy croak and aggressively mangled English – "By my twat, I tarry too long!" – but the joke becomes mechanical, and one tires of his repeated exclamations of "Buggair!"

Alison Fiske's Mistress Quickly is likeably droll, especially when gesturing with dim decisiveness as an aid to her limited thought processes, but if I never hear another Dot Cotton accent on a comic servant, it won't be too soon. Adam Kay's Slender is an angelically imbecile suitor, but Chuk Iwuji's Fenton, sounding disconcertingly like Graham Norton, seems a worse marital prospect.

As the only actor not simply doing a comic turn, Tom Mannion (Frank Ford) is not fiery in his jealousy but worried and insecure, saying: "I shall be rather praised for this than mocked" like someone who has been mocked before. His outburst when he thinks he has evidence of his wife's infidelity has pain as well as rage. Has he feared he was cuckolded during the recent war? It's the only time when the setting has even a tentative relation to the meaning of the play. But then, Kavanaugh's grip on the reins is often slack. When a whistle-blowing bobby chases a high-stepping Falstaff across the stage, that's what I call a tentative relationship to comedy.

To 25 Jan (01789 403 403)

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