THE CITY MADAM
Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Monday 22nd August, 2011
You are forgiven if you’ve never even heard of this mostly forgotten play by Philip Massinger. Written in 1632 it has been rarely produced – and this turns out to be a great pity because it’s a delightful, madcap romp that yields a very entertaining night at the theatre.
The plot concerns rich Lord Frugal (Christopher Godwin –having the season of his career at the RSC) who, in true Trading Places style has a wager with a friend that his wayward brother, when trusted with the key to the counting house, will revert to his former profligate ways. The friend, taken in by the brother, believes he will remain pious and frugal. This is entrapment of the highest order. Twists involve the rich man and two affronted suitors for his daughters’ hands, returning to the household disguised as Indians from Virginia, who bring conjuring and devil worship into play.
Massinger has a scattergun approach to satire. There is no obvious target but many shots hit home and have resonance in society today. The daughters aspire to nothing more than a long list of possessions and a retinue today’s WAGs would die for. Lady Frugal (Sarah Crowe) has all the vanity of the Botoxed to hell women of a certain age who refuse to age gracefully. Belief in astrology is held up as the shallow, self-serving foolishness it remains today. New money and old money come in for equal ribbing. The culture of debt and the corrupting power of wealth – all are covered. It is a morality tale without moralising or proselytising. Lines like “Conscience and wealth are not always neighbours” are almost thrown away. Lessons are learned by those who need to learn them and that is always satisfying.
The whole production is an exercise in high camp. The sumptuous Caroline costumes and the style of delivery – squeals and flapping wrists (and that’s just the men!) – is hilarious. Alex Hassell and Felix Hall as the suitors are a brace of spirited popinjays, matched in effeminacy by Nicholas Day as Lord Lacy who, at one point, sits in the audience to watch proceedings, his arm around the hapless punter in the next seat. Jo Stone-Fewings as the prodigal Luke commands the stage in a way he doesn’t quite pull off as Oberon in the current production of the Dream…
There is a lovely sequence involving puppetry and song, relating the story of Orpheus and Eurydice that had me gaping. The designer, fight arranger, puppet director all merit praise (Tom Piper, Renny Krupinski and Rachel Canning, respectively) but this is a prime example of every aspect of production working in concert. Director Dominic Hill has orchestrated a wonderfully entertaining piece, bringing this overlooked gem into the light.