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The Filthiest Comedy Ever Written

Published by: G.D. Mills on 16th Sep 2013 | View all blogs by G.D. Mills

A Mad World My Masters - Swan Theatre, Stratford 
(6th June – 25th October)

Bawdy, licentious, just plain dirty (though wittily so), these are just some of the epithets I might readily apply to Middleton’s largely disregarded Jacobean play. The director describes it as ‘about the filthiest comedy ever written’, and indeed to brave the performance is to submit oneself to a relentless barrage of salacious slapstick, double entendre and explicit sexual tableaux.  

Ellie Beaven as Mrs Littledick  Photo by Manuel Harlan

Performed, punnily enough, on the Swan Theatre’s ‘deep thrust’ stage, A Mad World My Masters is a city comedy, an historical sub-genre which revelled in depicting London at its most scheming, cynical and depraved. Dandy Richard Follywit and his ne’er-do-well accomplices devise increasingly outrageous ruses to rob his stinking rich Uncle of his fortunes; Mr. Penitent Brothel concocts a devious scheme by which to cuckold Mr. Littledick , and prostitute Miss. Kidman uses her tasty wares to pump everyone around her for cash. This is a mad world, a morally bankrupt world, in which everyone is out to screw everyone else.

Sean Foley’s production transfers the action to 1950s Soho, cleverly reverting to a Jacobean setting at the fancy dress party in the final scene. Subtly edited for a contemporary audience, we are treated to a number of topical allusions and meta-jokes, a style in keeping with the spirit of the original. The ever-fluid scenery, ingeniously devised by Alice Power, transforms before us from the interior of a seedy nightclub (modelled on the infamous 1950s Flamingo Club), into a Soho backstreet, an East end cafe, a boudoir, a study, a bedsit and various rooms within an opulent townhouse. No scene is static, the plot hurtles along, and a seam of physical farce runs through the whole piece. Here we find the kind of dextrous visual trickery readily associated with the long running West-end production of The 39 Steps.

Ian Redford as Sir Bounteous Peersucker. Pic by Manuel Harlan

There were lusty performances all round, notably Richard Durden’s unfeasibly decrepit rendering of Spunky the superannuated butler, Ian Redford’s affably perverse Sir Bounteous Peersucker and Ellie Beaven’s cunningly coquettish Mrs. Littledick. Accompanied by a live band, Linda John Pierre’s honey voiced 1950s jazz scat punctuates and leaks into a number of the scenes, lending to the production an authentic nightclub ambience.


Mad-World-2013-14-541x361.jpg  The final scene in rehearsal

The denouement involves the exposure of everyone’s Machiavellian machinations, though no one seems to mind that much. The final tableaux, in which the entire cast of twenty two end up huddled together in a state of spent exhaustion, nods towards the happiest of orgiastic resolutions. This is a spicy dish, sizzlingly served: if you think you can withstand the heat, book your table at the Flamingo Club now.

Royal Shakespeare Company  - 6th June – 25th October
Box Office 0844 800 1110




1 Comment

  • Cameron Lowe
    by Cameron Lowe 4 years ago
    This IS a spicy one, Geoff!! Thanks for your flavoursome review!
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