The sleaze of 1950s Soho makes a surprisingly perfect backdrop for the Royal Shakespeare Company and English Touring Theatre’s sexy and energetic A Mad World My Masters, visiting the Barbican for a limited run after serious success in Stratford upon Avon. The success is about all that is serious, though. Giving Middleton’s crazy city comedy the Carry On treatment, this production packs more innuendo and dirty jokes into three hours than anything I’ve ever seen and, like any good farce, it’s utterly unbelievable and utterly fantastic.
Dick Follywit (Joe Bannister), a young good-for-nothing eagerly anticipating the fortune he will inherit upon the death of his uncle Sir Bounteous Peersucker (Ian Redford), whiles away his hours in the jazz clubs and brothels of London’s seedier side. But tired of waiting for riches, he and his two dopey accomplices Oboe and Sponger (Lee Mengo and Michael Moreland) hatch a plan. Disguising himself first as a rich lord, then a classy prostitute and finally a penniless player, Dick steals almost every valuable from under the nose of his lovable but lecherous old uncle. Meanwhile, canny working girl Truly Kidman (Sarah Ridgeway) is exploiting men left, right and centre, playing the dominatrix for some clients, a virginal nun for another and racking up rich young admirers like Masters Muchly Minted and Whopping Prospect (Nicholas Prasad and Charlie Archer) to fund her lifestyle. In yet another sub-plot the bored Mrs Littledick (Ellie Beaven) attempts to conduct an affair with a self-flagellating man named Penitent Brothel without arousing the suspicion of her eagle-eyed husband. There are so many scene changes that the set barely stops spinning round between bars, aristocratic town houses and Truly’s home at 69 Swallow Street.
With a plot as bulging as the Jacobean codpieces that make an appearance in the play’s joyously ridiculous climax, A Mad World My Masters is a mad world indeed. Though a few scenes escaped his edit which could have been cut without being missed too much, Sean Foley just about keeps Middleton’s mania under control. The pop culture references and snippets of topical satire are ingenious updates but it’s also not afraid to revel in some good, old-fashioned early modern bawdiness. This production has really plucked a forgotten diamond from the Jacobean rough, polished it up and let it glitter under the light of a disco ball to the soundtrack of a live jazz band.
Silly, whacky and very, very naughty, this is Middleton as you’ve never seen him before: in suspenders. And God’s foot, it’s good!