Ellie Beaven as Mrs Littledick and the cast of A Mad World My Masters. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Reviewed by James Karas
A Mad World My Masters is an exuberant theatrical entertainment that grabs whatever it can from a number of genres to generate energy and sheer fun. It has enough singing and dancing to quality as a musical. It has elements of farce, slapstick, raunchy and boisterous comedy to keep the audience thoroughly regaled.
A Mad World was written by Thomas Middleton in 1605 and the current production by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the English Touring Theatre is billed as “edited by Sean Foley and Phil Porter.” Don’t believe it. It is like saying that Shaw’s Pygmalion is “edited” be Lerner and Loewe to make My Fair Lady.
Foley and Porter have moved the action to seedy, lively, bawdy, hooker-happy Soho of the 1950’s. They have changed many of the names of the characters from incomprehensible Jacobean to juicy modern ones: Sir Bounteous Progress, the rich old knight who curries favour with the nobility is renamed Sir Bounteous Peersucker. The jealous Shortrod Harebrain gets the more colouful name of Mr. Littledick.
With names like Dick Follywit, Penitent Brothel, Spunky, Sponger and Sir Andrew Fondlewife you know you are in the world of sex comedy where references to and puns about reproductive organs, to put it politely, will abound. And boy, do they.
Between the singing by the marvelously-voiced Linda-John Pierre, the pratfalls, the occasionally overdone slapstick and the aforementioned linguistic free-for-all, there are several plots that require significant comic talents to do them justice.
Ian Redford is the rich old fool of New Comedy who has a young mistress called Truly Kidman (Sarah Ridgeway) and a poor nephew in Follywit (Joe Bannister). Redford provides considerable comedy as the doddering fool who is robbed but never loses his adoration of nobles.
Bannister as the wily and agile Follywit pursues his uncle for money and the “virgin” Truly for other things. Truly’s pimp and mother (played by Ishia Bennison) has sown up Truly fifteen times back into virginity in the hope of getting her the proper husband.
Sarah Ridgeway as Truly Kidman and Ellie Beaven as Mrs Littledick. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Moving right along, we have Mrs. Littledick (Ellie Beaven) who wants what her jealous husband (Ben Deery) cannot provide but what Penitent Brothel (Dennis Herdman) can and does. While Littledick is listening and misapprehending what his wife is doing, we see her and her lover perform a shadow sex show behind the sheer curtains of a bed.
The actors interact with the audience quite frequently from pointing at people in the theatre, to engaging spectators in the front row, all to good effect.
The singing and the dancing are well integrated into the plot. The scenes from Soho bars to street scenes to interior sets are done efficiently and the frantic, joyous atmosphere is always maintained. There are frequent references to current events but much of Middleton’s text is retained.
Kudos to Sean Foley who directs the production in addition to “editing” Middleton’s text. He is able to inject life and energy in every scene and show abundant comic inventiveness.
There are some sequences that seemed overdone – the falling into the garbage can continued long after it ceased to be amusing - but overall this entertainment reaches from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century with gusto and flamboyance.