Saturday, 15 June 2013

Theatre review: A Mad World My Masters

The title feels very familiar to me but apparently A Mad World My Masters' performance history doesn't quite match its fame: Sean Foley's production for the RSC is a rare chance to see Thomas Middleton's Jacobean sex comedy, a play whose relentless series of single and double entendres makes the Carry On films look chaste and reserved. There's two distinct plots: Dick Follywit (Richard Goulding) stands to inherit the fortune of his uncle Sir Bounteous Peersucker (Ian Redford) upon his death. But he's not prepared to wait that long and, with his friends Oboe (Harry McEntire) and Sponger (Ben Deery,) he sets off on a number of ridiculous schemes to part the old fool from his money. Elsewhere, Mr Littledick (Steffan Rhodri) is insanely suspicious of his wife's fidelity - with good reason, as Mrs Littledick (Ellie Beaven) is in lust with Penitent Brothel (John Hopkins,) who's got plots of his own to get her into bed.

Linking the two stories, in a sparkling performance from Sarah Ridgeway, is the prostitute Truly Kidman, who's being kept by Peersucker, and has an eye on tricking Follywit into marriage once he's got hold of the cash. She's also a crucial part of Brothel's plan, masquerading as a nun to provide "moral guidance" to Mrs Littledick, but in fact plotting ways for her to meet with her lover the second her husband leaves the room.

Foley's conceit is to set the action in 1950s Soho, possibly the most recent time and place where it's easy to imagine gangsters, whores and peers all out on the town together. This setting, as well as the regular breaks for songs of the period, makes the production a bit reminiscent of One Man, Two Guvnors, although thankfully without the fake corpsing. I can see this show clicking with a West End audience as well, although if the RSC does have any such plans it would probably risk looking like a copycat. But this is probably the better show - the laughs aren't as big but they've got a quality of disbelief at the kind of thing Middleton was getting away with in 1605.

Foley has also, with Phil Porter, edited the text (although he says what remains is about 97% Middleton.) It largely involves updating jokes whose punchlines no longer make sense, including a couple of the subtlety-free character names.

There's a lovely comic performance from Richard Goulding in the middle of everything as the mercenary but inventive Follywit, ably backed up by Deery and McEntire as his dimwitted henchmen. And Ian Redford gamely plays the gull as a series of terrible disguises never fail to fool Peersucker out of his money. The parallel storyline is also played to the hilt, with Ridgeway really shining in a scene where, having finally got Brothel and Mrs Littledick together, she has to disguise their noisy lovemaking from the eavesdropping husband.

As his name suggests, Penitent Brothel is struck by regrets once he's actually got what he wanted, and this is Hopkins' chance to come into his own with some very funny scenes as he starts to fear for his immortal soul and try to make amends. There's also fun from the supporting cast with Richard Durden as Spunky the butler (here decrepit and deaf, which again made me flash back to One Man, Two Guvnors,) Ishia Benson as Truly's mother and pimp, and Ciarán Owens and Nicholas Prasad as Master Whopping-Prospect and Master Muchly-Minted, a pair of wealthy young fools courting the prostitute under the impression that she's a shy virgin.

Having been best known for The Play What I Wrote, Foley has in recent years been making a new name for himself as a director of big knockabout comedy like this; but last year I found his revival of What the Butler Saw a bit perfunctory. A Mad World My Masters is a return to form, and feels like a labour of love: The director speaks in the programme notes about his disbelief at the sheer amount of sexual wordplay in the script (you won't find this many damp front passages, prickly bushes, hungry mouths and well-polished organs in a whole book of Freudian dream interpretation) and his glee in the silliness of it all is communicated in every moment of this wonderfully ridiculous play.

A Mad World My Masters by Thomas Middleton, edited by Sean Foley and Phil Porter, is booking in repertory until the 25th of October at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.

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