Mad And Masterful: A Mad World My Masters

By Stuart Black Last edited 43 months ago
Mad And Masterful: A Mad World My Masters ★★★★★ 5

Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Londonist Rating: ★★★★★

You’d hardly expect a Jacobean comedy from 1605 to be so funny that it exhausts the audience with laughing, but A Mad World My Masters manages to do just that. People leaving last night’s show looked spent but thoroughly satisfied too.

Sean Foley’s ridiculous take on Thomas Middleton’s ridiculous play is merciless, a precision-tooled farce that refuses to have a single dead spot. Well, apart from one very long dead spot at the end of the play when the entire cast just sits there looking at the audience while waiting for something to happen. And that’s also hilarious. It’s a nod to Family Guy actually, which is about as unexpected as the nods we get to the Carry On films, Morecambe and Wise, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and all the other steals and references that are stuffed into this comic cornucopia.

The plot is also bulging out at the sides though basically revolves around two situations. The first features degenerate boozehound Dick Follywit (Joe Bannister), who decides it’s high time he liberated the loot lying in the safe of his uncle Sir Bounteous Peersucker (Ian Redford), so he and his chums don the disguises of a lord and his aides for an elaborate weekend long con. The second strand sees priggish Mr Little Dick (Ben Deery) trying to train his frisky young wife (Ellie Beaven) to ignore other flirty men around her and focus on her bible, hiring a nun (Sarah Ridgeway) who he thinks will help keep her pure.

It sounds like a lot to start with and it is, but there’s a whole lot more to come with countless cartoon-like characters weaving in and out of the 1950s Soho streets where the action has been cleverly relocated to. This updated setting has a lovely mix of sleaze and innocence (plus great sets and spot-on costumes) and also helps with the Vaudeville stylings and constant cabaret style innuendo.

Clearly the director’s motto is more is more, but what makes this play work is the incredible level of detail paid to even the smallest aside and gesture. The choreography is frankly staggering and Polly Bennett, looking after the dance steps, and Alison de Burgh, on fight detail, should take a well-deserved bow. From the stuttering walk of the ancient butler Spunky (David Rubin) to the synchronised reactions of Master Whopping Prospect (Charlie Archer) and Master Muchly Minted (Nicholas Prasad), this is a masterclass in high level slapstick.

Having started off in Stratford and now coming to the end of a UK wide tour, this RSC production is polished to perfection, the actors are all brilliant with faultless timing and every last yelp and giggle judged and delivered to get maximum comic mileage.

Surely director Sean Foley joins the elite with this one — especially because of his decision to play fast and loose with the 17th century text, letting the audience in, but then not letting them out until their ribs are aching with concentrated glee. It's all great, but the last word has to go to jazz singer Sarah Quist whose silky voice is woven through the mad tapestry like a sumptuous golden thread.

Fans of comedy, music and life itself should run to this rare delight before it ends next Saturday.

A Mad World My Masters is on at the Barbican until 9 May. Tickets £10-40. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.

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Last Updated 01 May 2015