Directed by Jo Puttick
Photographs from the show
Slideshow is automatic
Photographer: Linsey O’Neil
WESSEX Actors Company was founded last year to stage classic theatre mainly in the open air. Their debut production was ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, that open-air standby, so it was brave to choose for this year ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’, which is one of the least-known of Shakespeare’s plays – and deservedly so. It is said to have been written on the orders of Elizabeth I for a Garter ceremony at Windsor, but she gave the playwright only a few weeks’ notice. The result is no more than a jolly revel, comfortably the shallowest of all Shakespeare’s plays. The plot is much too complicated to explain in a brief review, and it is regrettable that the programme lacks a decent synopsis.
However, that is one of the few criticisms that can be levelled at this production because it demonstrates how a good company can make an entertaining evening out of the most unpromising material. The acting is first-rate, without a weak link in the cast of eighteen. The simplest of sets, with no lighting or sound amplification, throws much of the responsibility onto the actors, and they are up to the task. The director, Jo Puttick, turns all the peculiarities of open-air theatre to the production’s triumphant advantage.
Elizabeth wanted the play written because she liked the character of Sir John Falstaff so much, and he is at the centre of the action. John Billington conveys Sir John’s raunchy jolliness well, and padding helps us to believe the several references to his girth. It can’t add the few inches to his height which one somehow expects of Falstaff, nor, despite some apparent echoes of Brian Blessed, does it conceal his naturally light voice. However, this is a highly skilled actor with exquisitely clear enunciation.
Of the ‘merry wives’, Carole Allen extracts the full comic potential from the part of Mistress Page without ever over-playing – a beautifully judged performance. Naomi Butchart makes such an attractive Mistress Ford that Falstaff hardly seems to be dissembling in his wooing of her. Linsey O’Neill is a vivacious Mistress Quickly whose every appearance naturally lightens the tone.
Ford is the character who must establish the best rapport with the audience because he soliloquises to them on several occasions, and Chris Bunn achieves this successfully, as well as managing to act through the undergrowth of a big black beard when disguised as ‘Master Brook’. Paul Mole seems a little too young and virile for the part of Page, yet his performance holds the attention and it would be interesting to see him in a role perhaps more suited to his undoubted talent.
The Host of the Garter Inn is an important part, considering that we never learn his name, and Paul de Burton dominates the stage in – dare one say it? – a Falstaffian manner. The way in which Mike Hill maintains a Welsh accent as Sir Hugh Evans is a tour de force and the same may be said for Jon Evans’s Doctor Caius, even if it takes a few speeches to tune into his version of a French accent. Alan Colclough is probably not a gauche, nervy and ineffectual person, but he gives a delightful representation of one as Slender. Shallow, as splendidly played by Russell Biles, was evidently ‘sudden and quick in quarrel’ in his youth; his spirit is still willing but his ageing flesh is all too weak.
Audiences so far have been disappointing, which is sad both for the cast and for those who are missing a treat of good acting. There are performances at various Dorset venues throughout July.
John Newth, SceneOne
The Merry Wives of Windsor, Wessex Actors Co – touring
THERE were 20 actors on the lawns of Upton last Saturday, performing for 20 audience members on a damply threatening afternoon – and they gave a performance that would have been a credit to a seasoned professional company in a fully equipped and dry theatre.
Wessex Actors Company under their excellent founder/director Jo Puttick, in common with all other touring companies in this season, have been battling against the weather. Some of their 10 performances have already been cancelled or abandoned midway, and you can’t blame audiences for chickening out when the skies threaten downpours and flooded car parks.
So Saturday’s show in the walled garden of Upton Park was all the more magnificent, a bravura performance that delighted the audience and demonstrated that in a play usually dominated by Sir John Falstaff, it is possible to create a totally satisfying ensemble piece.
That is not a criticism of John Billington’s Fat Knight, but a tribute to the rest of the actors, and to the director’s understanding that if the audience is to believe in this story, it must accept that Sir John and his drinking companions and citizens of Windsor are likely to have known and consorted with each other.
Shakespeare reputedly wrote the play because his royal patron Queen Elizabeth I so liked Falstaff in the two Henry IV plays that she wanted more of him. So this is a comedy, set in Windsor where the thieving, cowardly and bragging knight is spending his final days, still rampaging around, running up unpayable debts and fancying himself with the women.
He hatches a plan to cuckold two local merchants and somehow get their money to pay off his hostelry account.
But Mistress Page, Carole Allen, and Mistress Ford, Naomi Butchart, outwit him at every turn, and by the end of the play he’s been covered in soiled laundry, tipped in the Thames, disguised as a woman and discovered capering in the woods with antlers on his head. At the same time a jealous husband has been taught a lesson and two controlling parents have been thwarted by true love.
This production allowed several handsome men of a certain age, many of them bearded, to demonstrate their attractions!
There is not a weak link in this wonderful productions, but outstanding area Mike Hill as Sir Hugh Evans, Jon Evans as the French Dr Caius, Alan Colclough as Slender and Linsey O’Neill as the garrulous Mistress Quickly – and of course John Billington, who makes the vain old sinner into a loveable character, and thus the play more understandable.
Do try to see this energetic and delightful production, at Merley House in Wimborne tonight, Bridport’s Millennium Green tomorrow Saturday 22nd July, in the guaranteed dry of Wimborne Tivoli on Friday 27th and finally on the green outside Poundbury farm house on Sunday 29th July. You will be glad you made the effort.
This Is Dorset Review Gay Pirrie-Weir
YOU need a sense of humour to sit outside to watch a play this summer but Shakespeare’s riotous comedy can be guaranteed to warm everyone up nicely, thanks to an imaginative Wessex Actors Company production which effectively turned the whole thing into a Carry on Girls farce.
The professional cast of mainly Dorset based actors under the direction of Jo Puttick made the most of the double entendres and word play in a comedy that pokes relentless fun at the French, the Welsh and of course Sir John Falstaff who finally gets his comeuppance after his rumbustuous appearances in Henry 1V and Henry V.
John Billington goes for broke as the rotund Falstaff, aiming to woo two wives for their money and ends up being dumped in the Thames. Once the women discover his plot, they plan a suitable revenge in a fun-poking play in which all the women come out on top.
The large cast without exception give peerless performances in an open air production that is the perfect antidote for a wet and windy English summer. There are further performances during July at Upton Country Park, Wimborne, Bridport and Dorchester and if ever a company deserved support it is the WAC – you would be whacky to miss them.
MARION COX, Dorset Echo.
The Cast and Crew
Carole Allen – Mistress Page
Carole has performed in numerous productions locally with Castle Players, BLTC and Brownsea Open Air Theatre. She says ‘As a child I always loved performing. My friends and I would persuade relatives to be ‘the audience’ for our shows. We’d spend ages planning and minimal time rehearsing, but the best bit as far as I was concerned was being ‘on stage’.
I still feel pretty much the same; the only things that have changed over the years are the roles I play, where once I was the young female lead I now play her mother, though I can also add a maid, a cleaning lady and a wicked witch to my repertoire’. Last year she played Hippolyta in WAC’s first production. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She is delighted to be back this year in the role of Mistress Page and working with such a friendly cast again.
Russell Biles – Justice Shallow
This is Russell’s fist ever role in a “Bill from Stratford” play. That’s if you don’t include his part as a Spear Carrier in a Modern Dress version of “Julius Caesar” for the National Youth Theatre in 1976. He is not quite sure why it has taken him over 30 years to get reacquainted with the “Bard” although we think it has something to do with saying the lines in the same order in which the author wrote them.
Russell is looking forward to this year’s tour as he tells us that he has not stopped laughing at rehearsals working with such talented actors, oh and Paul de Burton, who he extends his sincere thanks to, for sorting out a back problem. Watch the show and you will see what we mean.
John Billington – Falstaff
John trained, acted and directed in the North West before coming to Dorset via London. To the relief of audiences everywhere he took an extended break from acting to play the mortgage-payer.
Fifteen year ago he was asked to play Lear for Stages Studio Theatre at Lighthouse, go the bug again and has since played all manner of parts for all manner of companies. His daughters, now flown the nest, would often wake to the sounds of dad practising lines in the shower. Perhaps that’s why they flew. An experienced teacher and director, John offers drama coaching and acting classes to students of all ages.
Dani Bright – Anne Page
Dani has been acting for as long as she can remember (well acting up anyway!) Her initial foray into the world of acting was as a Christmas bauble at the age of 6 but thankfully roles have improved since then!
Always happy to be laughed at Dani has played a number of comedy characters since leaving the London Repertory Company Academy in 208 and even sat in a lukewarm hot-tub with an orang-utan for a recent advert (the things we do to get on the telly!) Dani is really looking forward to performing with WAC and is hoping for a run full of sunshine and laughs!
Chris Bunn – Frank Ford
My first involvement in a Shakespeare production was in 2004 when I played the part of Nym in The Merry Wives of Windsor on Brownsea Island. A good introduction to the Bard’s work as the play is an outstanding comedy (some say farce), intriguing with plots and counter-plots.
I recall thinking at the time that one day I would love to play the part of the jealous husband Frank Ford, a well rounded character.
Eight years on and with more experience under my belt, my wishes have been granted plus I now get the opportunity of cudgelling Falstaff, which is of course no more than he deserves!
Paul de Burton – Host of the Garter
Paul comes from South Manchester from a Theatrical family started his career in Ralph Readers Gang shows and Sang in light Opera. Bullied into getting a Real job he became a Chief Inspector of Police in Manchester. Starting and creating his own Detective agency he combined acting with running his Pic.
This show is Paul’s twentieth Shakespeare. From grave digging to being Theseus at Stratford-upon-Avon, Charles the wrestler, a shepherd in Winters tale and blind executioner in a wheel chair! Don’t come near him if you are allergic to laughter! In the West End a drunken butler in Earnest followed by a couple of Chekovs he found the funny side! He’s a red coated Master of Ceremonies – you will know this man’s face from functions in London! Uncle Paul as he is known in Theatre Circles is now Brother Paul and will later become Father Paul when he takes his final vows as a priest!
Naomi Butchart – Mistress Ford
Since returning from Winchester University where she studied drama, Naomi has been involved in many performances with the Castle Players, P&P Players and B.O.A.T. Shakespeare has been a passion for Naomi since school where she realised that she understood the language better than the colloquial speak of her own age.
Last year she played Hermia, where she was labelled the “diva” of the cast, this year she is thrilled to be back in the same capacity. However she was very surprised to see the amount of people willing to stand in for Falstaff. She has her suspicions why!
She has enjoyed being involved in this years production and hopes it is a successful run.
Chris Carr – Peter Simple
Simple by name and only occasionally by nature this is Chris’s first season with WAC and he’s thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Previous productions include work with Arena Theatre – BlueRemembered Hills, BLTC – Cider with Rosie and BOAT – The Taming of the Shrew.
He also sings regularly with concert group Cadenza. A summer of hard work, mosquitoes bites and sunburn has resulted in today’s performance and he hopes you have as much fun watching it as he has had rehearsing it.
Alan Colclough – Slender
Alan has been involved in theatre for more years than he (or anyone else) cares to mention! He was most recently seen as a ‘Bull-Goose Loony’, shouting a lot and bursting into tears. And for those of you who missed ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ you can catch this performance almost every Friday night in town!
Over the years he has worked with the great and the good (huge great egos and ‘oh good heavens’), in many roles for many societies, all far too numerous (and too boring) to mention here. He is thrilled to have been cast as Slender for this year’s WAC outing will be happier still when he is allowed out the corset and can breathe again!
Jon Evans – Doctor Caius
Jon’s theatrical aspirations were cemented at the tender age of ten when his ambition to play Joseph in the Nativity play was thwarted by the Vicar’s wife who cancelled the event because ‘the children were too naughty!’
Since studying Drama at University of Wales in Swansea he has gone on to direct and perform in ‘loadsaplays.’ From ‘Vileun the Vile’, ‘Quasimodo’, ‘Inspector Thomas’, ‘The Miller’ and ‘Mosby’ to numerous leading Shakespearean roles. Jon has performed in Athens, Kent, Wales and even strutted his stuff at The Globe (not the original). His eyebrows went to the same Trichological Drama school as Roger Moore’s and he supports The Scarlets RFC.
Mike Hill – Sir Hugh Evans
Mike only started this acting nonsense at the age of 50 due to boredom and the lack of ability and energy to play sports. A frustrated tenor (probably not worth a fiver) he’s had the good fortune to play The Pirate King and Sir Joseph Porter in two of Gilbert and Sullivan’s finest.
Acting roles have ranged from a small boy in Blue Remembered Hills, a bully in the Diary of Anne Frank and several fat ladies in Panto, with some serious stuff in between. Amazed to appear with BOAT for two years, even carried a severed head mmmm nice, but never got home before midnight (tough school). Will consider any role for a pint and a bag of chips.
Richard Lawson – Pistol & John
As good luck would have it, Richard discovered the stage at an early age when he was made to stand on a school bench for playing fortune’s fool and was made into an ass. He has abused the King’s English performing in Dorset and further afield. He trained at Plymouth University where he discovered Shakespeare and the humour of it.
This is the third time he has worked with Jo, that’s if he can remember what the dickens his name is. Oh well, if it’s sunny or rains potatoes playing Pistol, Richard has discovered the world is his oyster and that is the short and the long of it. (How many quotes from the play is that?)
Kyle Miley – John Rugby
This is Kyle’s first time with WAC, but his second time in a Shakespeare play where he played the part of Macbeth and got stabbed in the leg with a prop sword. He has worked with many theatre companies in the Bournemouth are and is studying contemporary theatre at university.
In this production of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ he could have played Falstaff but couldn’t age in enough time or grown a beard or put on 40 stone of weight in 8 weeks! But joking aside, he is happy playing the part of John Rugby and has really enjoyed working as part of Wessex Actors Company and loves the dynamic of the group (and the free tea and biscuits in rehearsal.)
Paul Mole – George Page
Sometime in 1979 a young Paul Mole sat in a classroom and heard his ancient English teacher read aloud “When shall we three meet again….” From that moment on he was smitten by The Bard. The lyrics of Costello, Strummer , Lydon, Marley and Shakespeare reverberated through Paul’s adolescent years and later the words of Moresy and Garvey joined these influences.
Having studied performing arts at Canterbury Paul has been involved in Shakespearean endeavours that are far too numerous to mention. After a hiatus due to parenthood Paul is delighted to return to the arms of The Bard thanks to the good people at WAC.
Linsey O’Neill – Mistress Quickly
Returning again to WAC for the second year, Linsey is certain it has less to do with her acting skills than her willingness to take on Box Office, Publicity & the Website! She is, however, happy to do (almost) anything to get on stage.
Always seeking to be the centre of attention, Linsey made her theatrical debut at the age of 2, reciting a very cute poem whilst raising her dress to reveal her knickers! Since then she has been known to reveal various articles of underwear all in the name of art but promises to remain fully dressed for this show!
Harry Rundle – Fenton
This is Harry’s first time with the Wessex Actors Company, and his first outside production. He’s prepared himself for the roulette of the weather by standing in the rain and reciting his Shakespeare with routine precision. (Yes he suffers for his art.)
Harry has been in numerous productions in the Bournemouth and Poole area since taking up Drama and Theatre Studies at A-level because ‘all the good looking girls were in the drama department’.
Harry is off to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) in September of this year to take the next step in a lifestyle he calls ‘farting around and chatting in costume’. In all seriousness, he’s proud and excited to be taking on the part of the love-struck Fenton and hopes that the audience has as much fun as he’s had.
Jerome Swan – Nym
Jerome Swan has been acting, on and off, for forty years. On and off what remains a mystery. His most prolific period of performance was at York University between 1996 and 1999, when he took part in several memorable productions, none of which he can now remember.
He regularly performs at Shaftesbury Arts Centre, where in recent years he has appeared as Prospero in ‘The Tempest’ and Fagin in ‘Oliver’. He often appears as the villain in the Arts Centre Christmas Pantomime. Indeed, it has been rightly said that he is well known as a bad character actor. He is easily recognisable in this production as he is the only man with a limp.
Chris Walker – Bardolph
Chris lived in Australia for seventeen years where he trained as an actor at the University of Western Sydney Theatre School.
Returned to the UK in 1991 but not before appearing in some dodgy Aussie soaps e.g. Country Practice & Home and Away. Enough said!
His Shakespearean roles include Sir Toby Belch, Jacques & Dogberry, all great fun to play. Chris also played Michael Henchard in a successful touring production of The Mayor of Casterbridge a few years ago and more recent roles include the enigmatic trap in The Caretaker by Pinter and also an award winning turn in Stones in his Pockets for the Weymouth Drama Company.
|Production manager||Scott Sullivan|
|Sound design & original music||Steve O’Neill|
|Website, publicity Posters & programmes||Linsey O’Neill|
|Box office||Linsey O’Neill|
|Photography||Linsey O’Neill Design|