Claudia Jacob enjoys an afternoon at Sixth Side Theatre Company’s ‘The Merry Housewives of Windsor’.

As a brand-new theatre company, Sixth Side Theatre Company brand themselves as wishing to challenge theatrical stereotypes, and their inaugural showcase, satirically named The Merry Housewives of Windsorpromises to do just that.

In a lesser-known Shakespearean comedy, Director Hal Lockwood and Assistant Director Tom Pymer are able to demonstrate how many of the romantic desires and misunderstandings of Falstaff, Doctor Caius and Slender (to name but a few) are more relatable to the modern day than one might first associate with a play written in the 16thcentury.  Small contemporary nuances such as the decision to frame the narrative as it if were a TV show, presented by Danny Booth, gave the show a sense of meta-theatricality: slightly Jeremy Kyle-esque in its exploration of the various romances and a clever directorial decision since these interjections kept the audience engaged. The three-man band made up of Lockwood himself (saxophone), Booth (keyboard) and Michael Young (drums), was a quirky addition, filling the scene changes with effervescent music.  I must commend Lockwood – it is rare to find someone who fills two prod team roles as Director and Music Director, and it was impressive to see him bringing the band in and out, whilst playing his saxophone.

Although there was no real set, I did not particularly miss it; I felt as though the cast made good use of the small space of Trevelyan College’s Dowrick Suite, however the constant opening and closing of doors which the cast needed to use to enter and exit the stage, although unavoidable, was somewhat distracting.  Even considering the long running time, for the most part the cast did a good job of keeping the energy up.  Thomas Porter had particular energy as Slender and I felt as if he bounced off Imogen Usherwood (Shallow) and Thomas Mullan (Sir Hugh Evans) particularly well. Mullan is consistently engaging and amusing as the slightly wired Welsh parson, never letting a line fall flat and always a crowd-pleaser.

Lockwood and Pymer decided to double up some of the smaller roles and although it was occasionally difficult to detect which role the actors were playing judging by the minimal costume changes, (usually just taking a jumper off), I felt as though the actors mostly made up for this through their expression; Zoe Haylock (Pistol/Simple) was particularly adept at this. Alice Bridge (Mistress Quickly) was consistent and easy to follow as the mischievous messenger, and I particularly enjoyed Katie Cervenak’s performance of Mistress Margaret Page, whose diction and clarity proved itself to be indispensable when reciting Shakespeare’s complex blank verse.  Her deliberate and exaggerated tone used when Falstaff is hiding in the Ford household, heightens the dramatic irony, a key element of Shakespearian comedy and one which I felt Cervenak brought out particularly well.

Of course, it would be impossible not to talk about the role of Falstaff, played by Richard Stuart.  The frequently inebriated knight, the brunt of the jokes, buffoonish suitor and master of bawdy puns and double entendre, Stuart executed the role with hyperbolic vigour and credibility.  Indeed, in many ways he is just as merry as the females of the play, though it is clear how his amusement is aided by his dulling intellect, unlike the sharp wit of Mistress Page and Mistress Ford (who made an excellent duo), who Falstaff underestimates.  He is able to command the room with his presence, yet effectively carry off a Faustus-like fall, realising that he has been tricked by those who he sought to woo, in a somewhat troubling Shakespearian exposition, aided by the dark lighting and the masked fairies, who encircle him, bathetically reducing his status as a Sir.

Whilst Esther Gillmor carried off the French accent consistently and enthusiastically as Doctor Caius, I personally felt as though her stereotypical French attire perhaps took away from the credibility of her character as an outsider of the English town of Windsor, not in the sense of nationality, but in the sense of her feeling alienated from the other characters; I felt as though we were laughing with Gillmor and not at her.  However, the comedic aspect of Caius’s linguistic misunderstandings was certainly not absent.  Gillmor’s dialogue with Issy Flower (The Host of the Garter Inn) was especially entertaining; Flower speaks with clarity and purpose and made her character an easy one to follow.  Gillmor’s duel with Mullan is particularly effective in undermining the two outsiders of Windsor, who appear ready for battle, yet when it comes to it, realise that a leek and a baguette are pathetically futile weapons.

An amusing tale of amorous misunderstanding that sees the females outwitting the males, Lockwood and Pymer tap into the connections between Shakespeare and the modern day, adding layers of comedy that appeal to a contemporary audience, without losing its Elizabethan authenticity.  Sixth Side Theatre Company certainly seem to have identified a niche in the saturated world of DST and I look forward to seeing what its future holds.

The Merry Housewives of Windsor will be playing in the Dowrick Suite in Trevelyan College at 2pm on Sunday 23rd and Monday 24th June, with a 7pm performance on Monday 24th June.