A Mad World, My Masters

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The National’s 2011 hit One Man, Two Guvnors was one of the most enjoyable evenings at the theatre that I – or most of the audience – could have had, combining razor-sharp verbal wit with inspired physical clowning. It comes as little surprise, with revivals still going all over the country on tour, that English Touring Theatre and the RSC have revived their own answer to Richard Bean’s 50s-set farce, namely an adaptation of Thomas Middleton’s all but forgotten Renaissance farce A Mad World, My Masters, which has been edited and updated by director Sean Foley and co-adaptor Phil Porter, with the setting moved from early 17th century England to 1950s London. The similarities with the earlier big hit don’t stop there, either. Both feature songs that counterpoint and comment on the action, both have a good deal of farce and eyebrow-raising innuendo, and both are clearly intended as hugely enjoyable romps. But can lightning strike twice?

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The answer is ‘yes, pretty much’. The first thing to note about Foley’s staging of the play is that it occasionally verges on the strenuous, with the cast seemingly instructed to play literally every line BIG and HILARIOUS; at times this works superbly, but at other times it feels as if there’s a lack of confidence in the text. The heavy editing and occasional interpolations (at one point, after a groan-worthy pun on ‘patient’ and ‘physician’, a character breaks the fourth wall and remarks to the audience, ‘Thomas Middleton, 1601’) are sometimes strained, but then at other times work superbly. When the generous but somewhat badly behaved knight Sir Bounteous Peersucker (and all the character names are of this ilk – others include Mr Penitent Brothel and Mrs Littledick) moans ‘The bald-headed hermit has retreated into his cave’, it does not take a master’s degree in Renaissance studies to work out what is going on.

The plot is chaotic, frantic and in places hard to follow – essentially all you need to know is that it revolves around two plots, one concerning a young man’s tortuous attempts to con and rob his uncle, the aforementioned Peersucker, and the other following the clergyman Penitent Brothel attempting to seduce the all too up-for-it Mrs Littledick, aided and abetted by the prostitute Truly Kidman and her clueless husband Littledick. This eventually builds to a scene of sustained farcical invention when two characters having passionate sex is mistaken by the husband for religious instruction. If this sounds like your sort of fun, you’re going to enjoy the evening immensely.

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The game cast give it all they have, and a hilarious Ian Redford (as Peersucker) gives a ludicrous role a comic gravitas that lasts even when he is attempting to whip himself while attired in a string vest. As the notional male lead Dick Follywit, Joe Bannister is fetching when he dons drag to seduce his way into riches, and Sarah Ridgeway is knowing and feisty as the seen-it-all prostitute who cons her way into respectability. At nearly three hours, it’s perhaps a tad too long, but nonetheless this is a fun night out that should entertain all but the most conservative or prudish of audiences.

Touring until 9th May. For more information and tickets, visit the website.

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