Merry Wives: the Musical, RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon

RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon

On paper, it all looks very promising. A musical version of The Merry Wives with a starry cast led by Judi Dench and Simon Callow, lyrics by the verbally inventive Ranjit Bolt and the RSC's golden boy, Gregory Doran, directing. Yet, in all honesty, I found it a rather strenuous romp that often seemed jokey rather than genuinely humorous.

The talented Paul Englishby is, in fact, only the latest in a long line of composers drawn to Shakespeare's comedy: Salieri, Nikolai, Sullivan, Verdi and Vaughan Williams all sought inspiration in the play. And you can see why Doran, as adaptor/director, thought it might make a good musical. It is well-constructed, deals with the ritual humiliation of Falstaff and contrasts the predicaments of aged lust with the promise of young love.

In performance, however, this is a souffle that takes a long time to rise. And the real reason lies in the nature of the beast. Shakespeare's play is a precise social comedy about bourgeois revenge on a dilapidated aristocracy: here, however, we are in the no man's land of musical comedy. You get the picture in the melodic melange of the opening-number where Elizabethans, Victorians and punks all sing "Let's cast away care" against the background of Stephen Brimson Lewis's half-timbered Windsor.

In short, we are in a musical fantasy-land rather than in Shakespeare's world of simmering middle-class resentment. And Englishby's score similarly shops around. At one point the bourgeois Ford and Page engage in an all-male tango with two of Falstaff's followers. And the catchy title number is a hoedown banged out by the merry wives and their friends on washboard, pots and pans.

Of course, there are compensations. Bolt's lyrics, when you can hear them above the orchestrations, sound witty. Callow's Falstaff is a suitably earth-larding figure with an aura of decayed grandeur. Dame Judi's Mistress Quickly, equipped with a backstory from the Boar's Head scenes in Henry IV, is also a genuine delight.

· Until Feb 10. Box Office: 0870 609 1110


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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