Before A Mad World My Masters ‘officially’ begins, actress Lois Meleri-Jones sashays onto the Flamingo club set in heels and stockings, with Marilyn Monroe-style hair and make up, sits on a chair at the front of the stage, and smokes and chats with nearby members of the audience. After a few minutes, the show kicks off for real, with Linda John-Pierre – the excellent lead vocalist of the house band, who are visible throughout the play on a balcony at the back of the stage – singing Dinah Washington’s Big Long Slidin’ Thing. It’s a song about a trombonist. Honest…
This all sets the tone for what is to come: a very cheeky, very funny, innuendo-filled romp set in Soho in 1956, based on Thomas Middleton’s early 17th-century play. It has been adapted by Phil Porter and Sean Foley, who is also the director. While most of the language appears to be from the original, there are updates – including to the character names (so Mr Shortrod Harebrain becomes Mr Littledick, for example).
Littledick (Ben Deery) believes his wife (Ellie Beaven) is having an affair and so asks an Irish nun to give her some spiritual guidance. The problem is she’s neither Irish, nor a nun, but a prostitute called Truly Kidman (Sarah Ridgeway) and she’s more than happy to help Mrs Littledick have her fun with the object of her desire – self-flagellating clergyman Penitent Brothel (Dennis Herdman).
The other thread of the story follows lovable rogue Dick Follywit (Joe Bannister) who is set to inherit the fortune of his lecherous, whip-wielding uncle Sir Bounteous Peersucker (Ian Redford). But, deciding he’s fed up of waiting for him to die, he goes to steal his riches instead, using a variety of disguises (including a posh Lord and a Geordie burglar). Peersucker is a regular client of Kidman, and Follywit even pretends to be her during one hilarious scene. Another highlight comes at the end of Act One, where we see one of Mrs Littledick and Pentitent’s trysts in silhouette on the curtains of a four-poster bed, while Kidman tries to obscure the sounds in order to fool Mr Littledick, who is listening in.
This English Touring Theatre presentation of a Royal Shakespeare Company production is enormous fun. The energetic ensemble are clearly having a great time and their joy is infectious. They frequently break the fourth wall: Peersucker tells one woman in the front row to go and see him later…and bring her friend; Kidman goes to find a man to kiss her on the cheek. On the Wednesday matinee performance, there appeared to be an unexpected mishap when, during a scene when Brothel is tempted by a vision of his lingerie-clad lover, his trousers split. Somehow, in a farce such as this, it seemed entirely apt.
It is inventively staged and the set changes covered by music from the band. There are eight songs – including standards such as Let the Good Times Roll, Cry Me a River and Ain’t Nobody’s Business – with most of the lead actors taking lead vocals at least once. The 19-strong cast (plus five musicians) are uniformly excellent, but Redford, Bannister, Ridgeway and Beaven are standouts. Lee Mengo and Michael Moreland, playing Follywit’s friends, and Nicholas Prasad and Charlie Archer as flower-and-chocolate carrying suitors Muchly Minted and Whopping Prospect are good comic pairings, too.
At times it felt like Carry On Wodehouse – and that’s not a criticism at all. However, a few of the audience I saw it with seemed to think it a little too “bawdy” and left at the interval. A shame, because while it is naughty and rude, it really is great entertainment.