A short lecher on morality

Sex and a ciggy: John Hopkins (Penitent Brothel) and Ellie Beaven (Mrs Littledick). Pictures: Manuel Harlan

A Mad World, My Masters

Royal Shakespeare Company

Swan Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon

****

THOMAS Middleton’s comedy about the manners and morals of early Jacobean society has been seen by some as the RSC’s response to the success of the National Theatre’s One Man Two Guvnors and such is the quality of this production that a run in the West End seems highly possible. 

The play describes the lurid activities of London’s social scene in the early years of the 17th Century. Middleton himself experienced a traumatic childhood as his greedy stepfather spent twenty years trying to get hold of the family fortune, with only the lawyers getting rich. This upbringing is reflected in his sharp satire on the social attitudes of the time.  

Director Sean Foley has trimmed the play’s length by a fifth, shaving off many of the references to Jacobean life which would mean little to modern audiences, but has introduced some new material, although the reference to an angry young man being seen at the Royal Court seemed to escape the audience despite being deliberately flagged. 

Appropriately set in the sleazy Soho of the 1950s where corruption and sexual laxity were endemic - remember the Profumo scandal and the tragedy of Ruth Ellis - the play has some brilliantly sung jazz vocals by Linda John Pierre to create just the right atmosphere to underscore the action.  

The plot has two themes.  The first has Dick Follywit - the names are often a clue as to the character - arriving in London determined to lay his hands on the fortune of his uncle, Sir Bounteous Peersucker. He pretends to be a noble gentleman, to take advantage of his uncle’s generosity as a host, as well as a call girl (to see off the threat posed by his uncle’s mistress) and then a strolling player to take even more of his uncle’s wealth. Richard Goulding manages all this with great aplomb, while his uncle, played by Ian Redford, proves the old adage that there’s no fool like an old fool.  

Penitent Brothel, again, this time with and  Truly Kidman played by Sarah Ridgeway

The other thread has Mrs Littledick (Don’t ask) trying to escape her jealous husband’s clutches to have an adulterous affair with Penitent Brothel. She is helped by Truly Kidman, who is a prostitute disguised as a nun and supposed to be giving Mrs Littledick some moral and spiritual guidance.  The affair is noisily consummated behind the curtains of a four-poster bed, overheard by the eavesdropping Mr Littledick (Steffan Rhodri) who believes that his wife is being taught about moral probity. John Hopkins makes a suitably tormented Puritan, Sarah Ridgeway is convincing both as prostitute and nun in the role of Truly Kidman and Ellie Beaven exudes sex-appeal as the libidinous Mrs Littledick. 

The sets and stage business are wonderfully detailed: for example, the statue of Michelangelo’s David in Peersucker’s house has an appendage which when toggled opens the door to his strong-room. An apparent malfunction leads to the appendage being toggled repeatedly, much to the audience’s amusement. 

Not that the audience was totally amused: my next door neighbours sat po-faced throughout the first act and failed to return after the interval. 

Without doubt this is one of the funniest productions the RSC has put on in some time, but I suspect its rollicking humour and bawdy frolics may not appeal to everyone. To 25-10-13.

Jerald Smith

(15-07-13) 

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