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The Theatreguide.London Review

A Mad World My Masters
Barbican Theatre       Spring 2015

Like a mad mash-up of a Ray Cooney farce and a Carry On film, this all-but-lost play by Shakespeare's contemporary Thomas Middleton proves a naughty bawdy delight. As Will might have said, a very palpable hit! 

Middleton's comedy actually has more of the flavour of the Restoration than the Jacobean age about it. A wily nephew finds several inventive ways to steal his inheritance from a rich uncle without having to wait for the old man to die. 

A jealous husband is cuckolded right before his ears, if not his eyes, and winds up thanking his rival. And a whore who specializes in playing innocent virgins hooks a rich young husband through the ruse. 

All is infused with a rampant delight in single and double-entendres, a quality that director Sean Foley has made the keynote of this co-production of the RSC and English Touring Theatre. 

In a programme note Foley assures us that he and co-editor of the text Phil Porter have added very few new jokes, only 'translated' some of Middleton's bawdry into more accessible terms so that, for example, the cuckold originally named Short-Rod Harebrain is now Mr. Littledick. 

Certainly Foley, a master clown himself, has directed his cast to make sure no potential sexual reference goes unnoticed, and the entendres of every multiple are punched up so thoroughly that no passing mention of organs, endowments or penetrations is allowed to slip by unappreciated. 

Foley also shamelessly employs every trick in the book of comic devices, from pratfalls to elaborate doubletakes, and from fart jokes to a man in drag. And all of this, if not precisely in Middleton's text (and most of it is), is certainly in the spirit of what's there. 

Take that cuckolding scene. While the husband listens through a wall and his wife is behind a screen with her lover (illuminated into a shadow play for our delectation), a friend of hers covers her sounds of delight by improvising a conversation to which moans, cries and invocations of the deity sound like natural responses. 

The result is something not only funny in itself but so clever that you applaud the writer as you enjoy the joke.

Foley and designer Alice Power set the play in 1950s Soho, which not only contributes to the raffish bohemian air but also allows for the inventive and atmospheric interpolation of period music. 

Each of the major characters gets the opportunity to break into an appropriate jazz or early rock song, backed by an onstage band and the formidable song styling of Linda John-Pierre. 

The production began in Stratford in 2013 and is now the precisely structured and well-oiled machine that great farce must be, and another of its many pleasures is watching the smoothness and confidence with which the large cast work together in everything from the timing of gags to the changing of sets. 

Special credit to Joe Bannister as the clever nephew, Ian Redford as the never unsympathetic uncle, Dennis Herdman as the lucky cuckolder, and Sarah Ridgeway as the even luckier whore.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - A Mad World My Masters - RSC at Barbican Theatre 2015 

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