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A Mad World, My Masters: the funniest play in Stratford in a long while

29 June 2013

9:00 AM

29 June 2013

9:00 AM

A Mad World, My Masters

Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in rep until 25 October

It’s hard to say anything about this uproarious show without falling into the appalling sexual wordplay which besmirches Sean Foley and Phil Porter’s version of A Mad World, My Masters, Thomas Middleton’s satiric comedy of 1605. Putting in its first ever appearance on a Stratford stage, Middleton’s play, as written, is itself as cornucopian a feast of Jacobean rudery as you could imagine. In updating the play to 1950s Soho – shortly before the Christine Keeler scandal began, Foley and Porter have had no need to modernise the scurrility, merely to trim away obscurities so that it scores as riotously, sometimes groaningly so, as it would have done four centuries ago. Nothing so timeless in language, nothing so inexhaustible, as obscenity.

But Middleton’s Mad World isn’t a show by Flanagan and Allen’s Crazy Gang, Benny Hill or a spiced-up Carry On film. It’s a richly layered comedy in which, as one of the characters puts it, all sins are venial but venereal. And these sins, such as they are, are for the most part light-hearted pranks committed by the young against idiotic buffers whose purses and wives can well afford the mischief and who suffer no real harm. The principal prankster is Dick Follywit, understandably put out that his preposterously wealthy grandfather, Sir Bounteous Peersucker (Ian Redford), won’t give him a penny now although in due course will be leaving him everything. The ‘Peersucker’ is a Foley/Porter invention replacing the opaque ‘Progress’ of the original. The fellatious suggestion in the new name remains thankfully unfulfilled, indicating merely that Sir BP’s Achilles’ heel is being overimpressed by the peerage.

No problem then for grandson Dick to visit in the guise of a fictitious Lord Overmuch (‘in great demand of late with our City bankers’) and thereby make off (I nearly wrote ‘Madoff’) with every valuable in sight while also escaping the threatened display of Sir BP’s organs or the trumpeted sight of his ‘****’ — and hens (not that anyone in the audience heard the last two words).

Richard Goulding has immense fun with the succession of disguises effected by Follywit in pursuit of the necessary ‘advance’ against his inheritance. Modelling the lordly Overmuch on a Bullingdonian Cameron, he reappears as a boiler-suited thief with an atrocious Northumbrian twang, then in travesty as a posh tart, and finally as a commedia dell’arte player at — happy invention – — a Jacobean-dress ball thrown by Sir BP. This is a play that delights in its own theatricality, so pretty much anything goes.

Foley’s production wisely jettisons the original play’s allusions to Jacobean society — now obscure to anyone but scholars — in favour of gently wicked reference to the living. Thus the prostitute Frank Gullman, as saucily inventive as Follywit and indeed who tricks him into marrying her, is rechristened Truly Kidman (Sarah Ridgeway) and given a touch of Nicole’s looks. But it’s a crudely superfluous touch to have renamed Harebrain, insanely jealous of his beautiful wife, as ‘Littledick’ and to overdo the joke with the dimensions of the codpiece he parades at the ball.

Suffering no such change of label is Penitent Brothel, the play’s most bizarre creation. No longer chasing whores, Brothel pursues his passion for the closely guarded Mrs Littledick. In a gloriously manic performance reminiscent of John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty, John Hopkins cracks through the defences with the help of white coat and stethoscope and has it away with Ellie Beaven’s ecstatic Mrs L — her orgasmic cries of assent misunderstood by the eavesdropping Mr L (Steffan Rhodri) as an avowal of marital fidelity.

The best is yet to come. Totally inconsistent with the unashamed concupiscence of everyone else, Brothel is discovered in his pathetic 1950s bedsit, whipping himself in remorse and anticipating sharing the fate of his breakfast sausages as they burn themselves to bits on his Baby Belling hotplate. Further torture awaits in a vision of Mrs L as a flaming suspendered seductress -— a vision dissipated only with the help of the bedsit’s fire extinguisher. Unburdening his new self to the real Mrs L, the now extravagantly Penitent Brothel insists that the bemused and bitterly disappointed lady, yet again overheard by Mr L, reaffirm fidelity to her husband.

Yes, it’s all way over the top, but so brilliantly managed by Foley and his terrific cast of principals that there’s precious little let-up in the hilarity. Fine supporting performances include Harry McEntire as Follywit’s chum, Oboe, and Richard Durden as Sir BP’s decrepit butler, Spunky. This is certainly the funniest play at Stratford in a long while and will get even better when everyone learns to relish and time their words as skilfully as John Hopkins. Great music, too, with singer Linda John-Pierre and the cast whacking across jazz standards beginning with ‘Big Long Slidin’ Thing’ through to ‘Let the Good Times Roll’. This is an evening when they really do.

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