A MAD WORLD MY MASTERS
The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 20th June, 2013
My first impression of this doctored version of Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean comedy, here updated to Soho in the 1950s, was that it is very similar to West End hit, One Man Two Guvnors, in terms of period and knockabout feel. I suppose what it really demonstrates is the unchanging nature of comic archetypes.
The language has been not-so-much updated as interfered with (in a knowing, oo-er Mrs kind of way) with modern-day interjections thrust into the play’s convoluted passages. Almost every line is a sexual metaphor of some kind. I didn’t know where to put myself.The cast handle whatever comes their way with relish.
It’s at first a celebration of human flaws and foibles, as certain characters set out to take advantage of others in a variety of means. Dick Follywit (Richard Goulding) can’t wait to inherit his uncle’s fortune and so he sets out to rob the old man by dint of disguise and confidence trickery. Goulding has something of a dynamic David Cameron about him (if you can imagine such a creature) – but don’t let that put you off. As his schemes unfold, it is with the old uncle that our sympathies lie. Ian Redford is marvellous as Sir Bounteous Peersucker, the victim of Follywit’s cons; he has peccadillos of his own, which make him ripe for exploiting. Scheming prostitute Truly Kidman (a superb Sarah Ridgeway) outdoes Follywit in the effectiveness of her deception. She dresses as a nun in order to facilitate a sequestered wife’s liaisons with her lover. That the wife is married to a Mr Littledick tells you all you need to know. Her lover is one Penitent Brothel, a name that conjures up the duality of the character. Played by the excellent John Hopkins, Brothel, having got what he wanted, repents of his lust and turns to self-flagellation instead, swapping one physical sensation for another.
There is much to admire in this strong company. Ishia Bennison delights as Truly Kidman’s mother and pimp; Richard Durden is a scream as “Spunky” the doddering old retainer whose hearing aids scream to herald his exits and entrances; Steffan Rhodri and Ellie Beaver as the Littledicks handle their broad comedy with aplomb, but my heart goes out to the hapless Constable (Dwane Walcott) perhaps the only innocent in the whole piece.
The production is riddled with contemporary music, some tunes more familiar than others. The cast have a go (Mrs Littledick’s Cry Me A River is poignant and apposite, Follywit’s number is less palatable – imagine the Bullingdon Boys doing Elvis) but most of the vocal stylings come from the sultry and soulful Linda John-Pierre. I could happily have listened to her all night.
Director Sean Foley masters his mad world with total assurance. The tampering with the text makes Middleton more accessible, demonstrating there is life in the old plots yet. The play is still about what it was always about: the eternal folly of man. The moral seems to be we should enjoy others being made fools of while we can – we never know when it’s our turn.
In the last act, there is a play-within-a-play (a ruse to mask a robbery) and Sir Bounteous remarks that the ‘actors’ “have made faces at us, laughing at ourselves.”
There’s a double meaning in that.