A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, Malvern Festival Theatre, Malvern

Fishy antics in London's fleshpots
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

How's this for perverse programming? For its latest touring production – one that will travel as far north as Huddersfield and take in places like Bath and Guildford – the Almeida Theatre has chosen a resoundingly London-based play: Thomas Middleton's biting comedy of 1613, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. The nearest this play, whose dense urban topography is such an insistent, louchely handled component of its satire, will get to fleshpots of the capital in the current revival is sinless Richmond.

It's odd, because you feel that Middleton's talents would have found a stamping ground in seedy King's Cross, where the Almeida now has its temporary home. Middleton would, one suspects, have less to say about Great Malvern (recently voted the second most desirable place to live in the country), which is where I caught up with Ben Harrison's enjoyable production.

The play divided the Malvern audience. There were empty seats after the interval (the couple sitting next to me left fulminating against the profanity of the drama), but those who stayed seemed to be enjoying it a lot. Perhaps those who departed were disappointed that this play which seems, at the start, to offer the promise of a Jacobean Carry On-style romp persistently whisks you out of that comfort zone into darker, more thought-provoking areas. The very first piece of dialogue is pure double entendre, as a social-climbing arriviste (here very jumped-up EastEnders in Catherine Russell's artful performance) vents her frustration at the daughter, who is too virtuous to cooperate in the status-conscious mating game: "Have you played over all your old lessons/ On the virginals?" the mother asks, nursing (ahem) a cocktail.

The show never loses that ribald dirty-mindedness, but it has better fish to fry, too. I use that expression advisedly, because the action takes place in Lent, when there was a pious ban on the eating of meat, with people trying to obviate this edict surreptitiously like alcohol-topers during the Prohibition. Greta Cuneo's costumes and design (a pervy shower curtain slinks round one of the interiors; a glitzy bead curtain is the decadent entry to another) give the proceedings a contemporary feel, which is useful for a piece where some of the gags are very period-specific, but where the satirised human impulses are far from dated. There's an excellent scene where a couple of spying busybodies, who have a lucrative sideline confiscating smuggled meat, find themselves hoist by their own petard when a country wench hands over a parcel that poses as dead edible flesh, but is actually the bastard baby she wants to get rid of.

In a characterful cast, Stephen Boxer is particularly good as Allwit, a complacent cuckold who allows his wife to conduct an affair with Terence Wilton's leather-clad stud, Sir Walter Whorehound. Allwit is effectively a "kept" man, since his supplanter in bed pays for the privilege. Sir Walter performs all his duties for him – even (bizarrely) that of being proprietorially jealousy about Allwit's wife, for it's her lover who is anxious that she does not go with other men. Boxer brings this peculiar mentality to vivid life in a production that would find a home from home in King's Cross.

On tour; 2-7 April at Richmond Theatre (020-8940 0088)