Review – The Merry Wives of Windsor, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until January 12, 2013.

SETTING Shakespeare’s scintillating 16th century farce in the present day – Windsor in 2012 – is a master stroke which makes this uproarious production a complete winner for all.

It’s an absolute cracker for both audience and cast with its gradual build towards a barnstorming finale with truly memorable performances dotted throughout. So it’s hats off to director Phillip Breen who has ensured this production fizzes and pops in all the right places and at the right times with the help of the modern gadgets we so take for granted today.

Outstanding throughout was Desmond Barrit with his brilliantly comic portrayal of the vain and hugely over-sized Sir John Falstaff - echoes here of the late Peter Sellers in some of his iconic roles (in my mind’s eye I could picture a Mafia mobster in a lift – a famous scene). He’s an RSC old-hand while Anita Dobson – forever linked with television’s EastEnders – is one of several cast members in their debut season with the world famous company. And what a storming start she made as Mistress Quickly – the go-between in this battle of the sexes. Exquisite timing induced much laughter.

Particularly eye-catching too was a twinkly provocative and vampish Alice Ford, played by Alexandra Gilbreath - especially in the scenes with would-be-seducer Falstaff.

Meg Page (Sylvestra Le Touzel) provides excellent support as her fun-loving co-conspirator and partner in revenge after they had received identical ‘love letters’. They believe Falstaff has many, as Mistress Page points out: ‘I warrant he hath a thousand of these letters, writ with blank spaces for different names’.

And here revenge is sought more in fun than absolute retaliation or punishment.

Other performances to enjoy were provided by Bart David Soroczynski’s crazy French Dr Caius, who wouldn’t have been out of place in ‘Allo ‘Allo!, and John Ramm, as the ‘wronged’ Frank Ford, who was involved in caper chases reminiscent of the Keystone Kops. Once as Falstaff initially escaped discovery hidden in a wicker laundry basket full of dirty clothes via the Thames! And then hilariously dressed as the Fat Lady of Brentford...

Stephen Harper’s timing and audience involvement as the drunken Bardolph – one of a rowdy trio outraging Windsor society with their bad behaviour - was a delight to behold and David Charles also impressed as the not-to-be-taken seriously Welsh parson, Sir Hugh Evans. But it is a production in which everyone is at the top of their game right through to the children in the haunted wood finale – with plaudits also due to designer Max Jones for several quality sets including a spooky Windsor Great Park.

What better on a cold autumn night to have both mind and body nourished and warmed by what is arguably Shakespeare’s greatest farce and to see it treated and brought to life so well.

A night out that can definitely be recommended to family, friends and mere acquaintances.