Theatre: Review: Falstaff, Factory Theatre
In the Verdi household it was known simply as ‘the big belly’, and the composer’s operatic swansong Falstaff is an amazingly larger-than-life feat for a man pushing 80. Not that you’d know it. Music, drama and words hurtle forwards with the heel-kicking gusto of over-wintered cattle released onto spring pasture. And it’s a big ask for any company, not least one that needs must reduce Verdi’s jaw-droppingly ambitious orchestral score to a band of 13 players.
Cannily lit by Matthew Graham, Opera Project and Tobacco Factory Theatres’ co-production avoids the 1940s/50s updates of recent landmark English productions in favour of a stylised Middle Ages of the mind, with Herne’s Oak ever present, plus an overlay of Breugelian knock-about to lubricate the comedy.
At its beating heart (although, given the swell of his prosthetic stomach, best keep a defibrillator close to hand!) is Simon Thorpe’s Falstaff, whose well-honed comic instincts manage to overcome the implausibility of said padding (more Embarrassing Bodies than My Fat Knight-of-the-Garter Wedding). Dressed up and on the pull, he’s part pantomime dame, part rouged polar bear: and when he scents any possibility of success, a glint enters his eyes as if Gordon Ramsay has just caught a sous-chef applying ketchup to a scallop.
The rarely-absent quizzical twinkle makes up for a few instances of vocal discomfort – but harder to sidestep is the fact that, in the words of Mistress Quickly, not only is Sir John flabby, he’s also balding and grey. Thorpe, on the other hand, looks like he’s still got a good few Friday and Saturday nights left in him, and the overweening self-delusion and the absurdity of Falstaff tilting an extravagantly-feathered cap at Alice and Meg is undermined by the relative youthfulness.
Behind the comedy, too, lies a poignant reflection on growing old – and when, in Act III, the thoroughly humiliated Knight wistfully sings ‘kisses fade, but the memory lingers’, did opera and real life intersect in Verdi’s mind’s ear?
The ‘Merry Wives’ (Angharad Morgan and the appropriately-named Stephanie Windsor-Lewis) are an agreeable bunch, and Gaynor Keeble’s vocally voluptuous upholstery brings Mistress Quickly into irrepressibly sharp focus. Outstanding, too, among the men is Matthew Sprange’s resolute, sturdy Ford – Robyn Lyn Evans adding a hint of heldentenor to Fenton’s youthful ardour.
The show itself is still in the process of bedding down – the band took a while to ‘settle’ – but conductor Jonathan Lyness keeps Verdi’s fidgety energy on the boil, and the end of Act II oozes snap, crackle and pop. Maybe the final fugue was a tad cautious, but the containment allowed the full ingenuity of the counterpoint to shine. Like its anti-hero, Verdi’s comic masterpiece is a force of nature; Opera Project’s Falstaff looks like a show with staying power – if, for the man himself, no stays!
Falstaff is at the Factory Theatre until Saturday, October 24. For more info and to book tickets, visit www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com/shows/detail/falstaff_by_verdi