Review: Henry V / The Merry Wives of Windsor, Roman Theatre of Verulamium St Albans

A return to live theatre is well marked by these vibrant open-air productions of Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Roman Theatre of Verulamium in St Albans

“Try and stay one box away from each other at all times”

As we try and search for a new normal in these uncertain times, it is reassuring to know that we can always rely on the unfailing unreliability of the British weather. After a scorcher of a week, the Maltings Open Air Theatre Festival finds itself opening into thunderstorms aplenty in the atmospheric surroundings of the Roman Theatre of Verulamium in St Albans. Plus ça change…

What has changed though is the basic reality of putting on a play. Social distancing rules supreme and it is fascinating to see how directors Matthew Parker and Adam Nichols are dealing with it in their respective productions of Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Parker’s Henry V embraces it full on as it utilises the concept of a school production being reblocked to be socially distant to present the play. Drawing on rehearsal room experience, it’s a canny way of demonstrating this new reality. Floor grids to keep actors a metre away from each other, colour-coded props and costumes, constant reminders to not get lost in the moment and touch.

What feels remarkable is that there are large swathes of the production where you could actually forget about these restrictions. Filleted and finessed down to less than 90 minutes, it’s a fast and fearless romp through the play that hits all the beats, fits in several theatrical flourishes and also finds time to make a convincing case for a bad-ass Princess Katherine (strong work from Rachel Fenwick).

Mara Allen casually makes a piercing impact in her first leading role, combining swagger and sensitivity as the titular monarch still coming into their powers. And Felipe Pacheco’s multi-roling as Exeter, Nym and Bates highlights a highly magnetic and exciting stage presence. But the whole company impress with their fluidity, slipping effortlessly between their many roles and their child persona too – my only complaint is that I didn’t know any of the songs because I am so far from being down with the kids!

By contrast, Adam Nichols’ 80s-themed take on The Merry Wives of Windsor has a much lighter take on Covid as it paints the broad strokes of a highly crowd-pleasing interpretation of this comedy. Replete with period musical numbers (Lachlan McCall’s uproarious Falstaff is the singer of hair rock band Spirit of Wäntönness) and local references aplenty (the Fat Woman of Hemel…), there’s a joyous sense of fun that is hard to resist here.

Shakespeare’s light-hearted play carries the adaptation well and Nichols’ works in some brilliant visual gags, not least with a wheelie bin – the Dirty Dancing lift is ingeniously reconceived and the way ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ is delivered is still making me chuckle now. And in the midst of a raft of genial performances, Isabella Javor’s almost-compère Stella Quickly is thoroughly enchanting and engaging in equal measure.

And a final note on how impressively run the whole enterprise is. Company members ushering on other plays, friendly and clear advice on how to stay safe from staff, oodles of pleasantly-scented hand sanitiser – your only worry really is just how heavily it might rain! A welcome and recommended return to live theatre. 

Running time: both plays run approx 90 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Laura Harling (and what photos they are!)
Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor are booking in rep until 31st August

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