A Mad World, My Masters (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, March 14th)
Naughty fun abounds in the touring production of the Jacobean comedy A Mad World, My Masters, which packs so much filthy humour, innuendo, and double entendres into the space of three hours that it must be a contender for some kind of world record.
Audiences loved this RSC production at Stratford in 2013 and now the excellent English Touring Theatre is giving it a wider showing, and deservedly so. Thomas Middleton’s 1605 city comedy has been edited and updated by Sean Foley and Phil Porter, switching the setting of 17th Century London to 1950s Soho, backed by some delicious jazz blues played live (much of it sung by a glorious Linda John-Pierre, backed by outstanding musicians – rarely has the song Big Long Slidin’ Thing sounded so salacious), which certainly helps to Let the Good Times Roll.
The unmitigated success of the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors, which transposed Goldoni’s 1743 classic to Brighton in the swinging Sixties, was bound to see others follow in its wake. But that is a relatively family friendly show when compared to the bawdiness in A Mad World, My Masters, which would surely make even the Carry On team blush.
The text is carefully edited but the 17th Century language more or less remains, with some of the character names updated. The result, which Sean Foley also skilfully directs, is a riotous comedy romp boasting a splendid cast.
This world is not Middleton’s Renaissance London but a post-war scene where class barriers are being broken down, where drunken lords mingle with ladies of the night, where sex and money are the new gods, and cheats and crooks are the new nobility.
Joe Bannister is devilishly smooth and energetic as the prankster Dick Follywit, trying to get an advance on his inheritance from his extravagant and reluctant grandfather, and savours the range of roles he has to play in his attempt, from snooty nobleman Lord Owemuch to a Geordie thief and leggy tart. Ian Redford is perfect as the aged lothario Sir Bounteous, a rascally Falstaffian character who would be as much at home in a bawdy house as the Boar’s Head Tavern.
Ben Deery is excellent as the obsessively jealous and cuckolded Littledick, with Ellie Beavan as his wife, aided in her attempts to escape into the arms and bed of a more ardent lover by Truly Kidman (Pearl Mackie). Here, the Puritan Penitent Brothel (a great performance from Dennis Herdman) is a lovesick clergyman, so tried and tested by his passion that he is even visited by an alluring succubus seducing him to yield to his lusts – never has a fire extinguisher been used to such comic effect. The scene in which Kidman (disguised as a nun) covers for Penitent and Mrs Littledick during their noisy tryst while Mr Littledick listens in upstairs is a hilarious gem.
Pleasing extras include David Rubin’s doddery butler, whose every appearance is announced by a whistling hearing aid, and Ishia Bennison’s Mrs Kidman, a crafty mother who comes across as a mix of Mollie Sugden and Barbara Windsor. Alice Power’s utilitarian set design is also a triumph of creativity.
Outward shows being least themselves remains the theme of this play, and perhaps the greatest strength of this production is making a 17th Century classic so accessible to present-day audiences in such a lively and enjoyable way.