Tuesday 2 July 2013

A Mad World My Masters

Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


Written by Thomas Middleton
Edited by Sean Foley and Phil Porter
Directed by Sean Foley

Ian Redford

With bawdy banter, cross dressing, a spot of flagellation and smutty double-entendres aplenty, Sean Foley has taken Thomas Middleton’s 1605 comedy and vaulted it forward to London’s Soho in the 1950s with a leap in time that for the most part works lasciviously well. Soho has a natural affinity to amorality, with the programme notes wryly documenting the area’s association with gangland villainy as well as its celebrated strip joints, so for a play that bursts with sexual frustrations, the geography works well.

Some aspects of the plot are timeless. Lust, womanising and the inclusion of that well worn glorious seam of bawdy British humour, the infinite comic potential of the penis, (truly a gift to writers that keeps on giving) are all deployed in an incongruous tale of sexual deception and bungling theft. Oh, and there are also the frequent, pre-Chaucerian gags at the expense of elderly gentlemen whose sexual desires outweigh their abilities, confirming the adage that there is “no fool like an old fool” whenever possible.

The 1950’s are acknowledged via costume and music and in a nod to the skiffle of the recent One Man, Two Guvnors, a beautifully balanced 6 piece band create a mise-en-scene with Shake, Rattle and Roll, going on to pepper the script with other 1950’s gems including the smoothest of takes on Cry Me A River. The musicians are complemented by the powerful Soul presence of Linda John-Pierre, a glorious diva whose voice alone suggests a mellow jazz trombone and slowly rotating 1950’s glitterball with every note she sings.

Heavily stylised maybe, but this confection of a piece contains some cracking performances. Ian Redford’s RSC debut as the blustering Sir Bounteous Peersucker creates a delightful hybrid that suggests the fondly remembered legends of Richard Grifffiths and Robert Morley. Richard Durden as his doddering butler Spunky similarly turns in a marvellously complementary performance as yet another ageing gent, desperately seeking female charms.

Among the boys, Richard Goulding’s Dick Follywit bears more than a passing resemblance to a young David Cameron in his Bullingdon Club days, whilst John Hopkins’ ridiculously named Penitent Brothel is comically priapic in his adulterous seduction of Ellie Beaven’s Mrs Littledick. Hopkins’ singing of the hymnal Yield Not To Temptation, solitary in his bedsit whilst whipping himself, before steamily fantasising about Littledick is a slick combination of acting, comedy and song.

John Hopkins and Ellie Beaven
Beaven’s performance is a wonderfully controlled contrast that ranges from an initially frustrated and modestly dressed wife through to a Fosse inspired fantasy seductress in sizzling lingerie that evokes the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer’s famous “pure theatrical Viagra” description from years back, as her character mercilessly messes with Brothel’s mind. Sarah Ridgway’s protagonist prostitute, Truly Kidman, is another chic performance from an actress who knows how to blend na├»ve coquettishness with downright hilarity, as her character’s arc journeys from bedroom to the impersonation of a god-fearing Irish nun. Ishia Bennison as Kidman’s mother and pimp is a modest role yet one of outrageous and well portrayed depravity with comic moments that belie her talent in flashes of maturely controlled understatement.

Not for the easily offended, Foley’s editing is generally sharp, well-tailored and very funny, though a reference to FGM  from Kidman’s mother as she tells of repeatedly re-creating her daughters virginity is the one intended joke of the night that lacks both taste and sensitivity.

The 2013 RSC Swan company are a sensational troupe. This fusion of Carry On humour and slickly rehearsed Commedia d’ell Arte would easily grace a London stage, whilst their Titus Andronicus continues to shock and astound. Bring on Candide!

In repertory until 25 October 2013

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