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Review: RSC's fathers, sons and Falstaff in Henry IV part 1 and 2, Barbican

Antony Sher as Falstaff in RSC's Henry IV

It is fathers, sons and frolics as Greg Doran turns his hand to the two part story of Henry IV and the future Henry V. And it is all about personal and public appearances.

Prince Hal (Alex Hassell) enjoys a wild life in London's less salubrious hang outs with a gang of the less than gentile headed by Sir John Falstaff (Antony Sher). But responsibility and princely duty nags at him to reform as civil war threatens his father's kingdom and he plots, albeit naively, an impressive turnaround.

He contrasts starkly with Harry Hotspur (Trevor White) the son of the Duke of Northumberland who takes his duty seriously, fighting heroically but in a way is too honest. He cannot deviate from his inherent irascible nature, temper his hot-headedness which is something that ultimate betrays him.

Meanwhile Falstaff just lives in a world of charming denial and playful lies to suit whichever circumstance he finds himself in. He is one of those characters that light up the stage, Sher's throaty, red-cheeked, never-rushed portrayal one that you just enjoy spending time watching.

Jasper Britton and Alex Hassell as Henry IV and Prince Hal in the RSC's Henry IV

The King (Jasper Britton) is disappointed with his son and increasingly haunted by his actions in obtaining the crown. At the beginning of Part 1 he sees a figure that looks remarkably like the white-robed Richard II, as portrayed by David Tennant last year, and there are other references too. In part 2 the Cheapside gang tussle over a metal bowl that is doubling as a mock crown in a way that is reminiscent of the deposition scene in Richard II

Richard's warning to Bolingbroke of bloodshed should he cease the crown has come true and those that appeared to support Henry have now turned against him. The thrown vacated by Richard is lamented by the very men who helped engineer his demise. And in a way he feels deserted by his own son who would rather spend time with drunks, thieves and prostitutes.

So we have a son growing up and into new responsibility turning from the father-like figure of Falstaff to his real father and responsibility. And we have a father trying to reconcile his actions and reconcile himself with his son.

It can be tricky weaving the fun and frolicking Cheapside scenes with what is going on at court but Doran manages to match the sack-fuelled energy with an urgency in the looming political crisis. The company of Falstaff is alluring, why would Hal want to give all that up and take on the cares of the being heir to the throne?

In part 2 as Prince Hal begins to withdraw from his old life with his friend Poins* (Sam Marks) we are introduced to some new Cheapsiders: Pistol played in hair-raising style like a cat on catnip by Antony Byrne and Doll Tearsheet (Nia Gwynne) the feisty prostitute and sometimes love interest of Falstaff. It is bawdy, raucous and full of sexual innuendo, quite whether it all had the same connotations in Shakespeare's time I'm not sure but it had me giggling.

Having seen part 1 back in Stratford in the summer, it is nice to see how the production has evolved with some new little comic touches. Seeing part 2 in the same day made it a much more rounded and satisfying story.

Henry IV works because Falstaff is funny, because Hal is charming and the King is anxious. When Hassell delivers his first speech as King Henry V at the end of the play it is slightly faltering with visible nerves and in those few moments you get a real sense of the terror he feels at what he has taken on. You almost want him to go running back to Cheapside.

I said it back in June and I'll say it again if we don't get to see Alex Hassell play Henry V, then the casting director in Stratford needs a slap.

Henry IV part 1 and 2 runs in rep at the Barbican until 24 January, 2015. The plays are 2 hours 45 and 2 hours 50 respectively plus a 20 min interval. 25 £10 day seats are available at the box offices - one per person. They are positioned at the back of the stalls but depending on demand they might move them forward to the middle of the stalls.

* It is a cruel trick Doran plays having Prince Hal and Poins both strip off their shirts while standing on opposite sides of the stage. How on earth are you supposed to a) concentrate on what they are saying and b) decide which to look at when you can't take both in at the same time. Ahem.