Whenever I think of a play at the Globe or the RSC I tend to visualise a traditional production. These two companies have excellent shows, this is for sure, but I always imagine these plays to stay very true to the source material. Yet in Sean Foley’s revival of Thomas Middleton’s classic A Mad World My Masters within the raunchy streets of 1950s Soho, I have discovered just how true and loose the Royal Shakespeare Company can be in bringing these Jacobean texts to life.
The play opens up innocently enough in the ‘Flamingo Bar’, where our central characters soon congregate around the production’s lead singer Linda John Pierre, only for Pierre to bring the play into its expected Middleton filth with its opening number about Daddy’s and fingers. Suddenly the audience watches the recurring spectacle of the backdrop – an assortment of building blocks with doors and portraits attached – that slides along stage to create different locations throughout. It’s an inventive method of scene change that keeps all the audience engaged as the characters shove their apartments together to build mansions. During these scene changes, Ben and Max Ringham use Linda John Pierre and her brass band to accompany these interludes with classic numbers such as Washington’s ‘Cry Me a River’, Ray Charles ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ and Billy Holiday’s ‘Aint Nobody’s Business’. The Ringhams don’t forget their fellow actors either, as each lead gets their own new musical number integrated into the text and the scene changes, while the rest of cast does dance routines whilst removing props and furniture. Truly, this malleable set and riotous use of music translates the festivity of the original text into a saucy musical for modern audiences.
And like most musicals, the ensemble is stronger as a collective than a team of individuals; which is meant as a tremendous compliment. For a production such as this, the cast need to be a tight group effort with everyone on the same level of quality, a hurdle that seems effortless by these actors. First you have the classic Ian Redford as Sir Bounteous whose Falstastaffian mishaps are caused by the charming Joe Bannister as Dick Follywot (‘God’s Foot, I’m Good!’ as his calling card catchphrase); then there’s the aptly named cockhold Littledick (Ben Deery) and his seductive wife (Ellie Beaven); then Mrs. Littledick’s lover Penitent Brothel (Dennis Herdman) who can make a comic sketch out of two minutes and a dustbin; and finally there’s prostitute Truly Kidman (Sarah Ridgway) and her pimp mother (Ishia Bennisn) who dance between RP for the clients and their own East End tongue. It’s a marvellous cast stuffed with chemistry, which is key to bringing this obscure Middleton text to life.
If there is one thing Foley and his cast understand, it’s the Middleston sense of humour: A Mad World My Master’s has retained all the innuendo and phallic wordplay to make an onslaught of sex jokes from orgasmic moans misinterpreted as religious ecstasy to Follywit providing fellatio to Michelangelo’s David. This is not a production to bring your kids to!
A final not goes to Alice Power’s costume design as she does a fine job depicting 50’s London fashion while also having some metatextual fun at the Masquerade with all the characters in traditional Jacobean attire.
All of this provides a production that is simply a classic romp of a comedy. It doesn’t have any major subtleties, but the production does a tremendous task of fishing the play out of its obscurity and into a new audience’s lap for a Jacobean Rocky Horror. Foley has made A Mad World My Masters retain its filthy hilarity while satirising the sex-crazed London of long ago all under the tune of smooth jazz.