Theatre review: A Mad World, My Masters, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

The RSC is set for an uproarious success akin to One Man, Two Guvnors

Paul Taylor
Friday 14 June 2013 10:38 BST

The National Theatre scored a massive hit by shifting Goldoni's 18th century commedia dell'arte, The Two Servants of One Master, from Venice to the Brighton underworld of 1963 and re-dubbing the result One Man, Two Guvnors. Now the RSC are up to similar tricks with Sean Foley's uproarious revival of A Mad World, My Masters.

Thomas Middleton's satirical city comedy, first performed in 1605, has been relocated to a mid-1950s Soho of duplicitous whores, seedy glamour in cahoots with criminality and pervy repression surviving alongside emergent moral laxity. It's a milieu that proves to be a liberating match for Middleton's Jacobean world of sex-mad, venal and venereal goings-on in a play that is, erm, stiff with entendres, double and otherwise. 

But the show – which like One Man, Two Guvnors is fuelled by in-period songs and gets a lot of farcical mileage from the painful slowness of a doddering oldster – has its own distinct and deliriously funny identity. 

Where Richard Bean gave the Goldoni a thorough makeover, Foley (and his co-adaptor, Phil Porter) have most artfully edited, shortened and tweaked the gorgeously gamey Jacobean language  of the original, putting a modern Carry On Gulling-style spin on the proceedings. 

John Hopkins, in hilariously agonised, self-flaggelating form as a tumescent Puritan, still rejoices in the moniker Penitent Brothel, but Steffan Rhodi, excellent in the role of a nerdy obsessively jealously husband, who unwittingly connives in his own cuckolding, has had his name commuted from Shortrod Harebrain to the more broadly winking Mr Littledick. 

Hustled along by blowsy jazz and mad between-scenes jiving by the ace company, the production, with its inspired physical clowning, revels in the play's forgiving relish for the con-artistry of frauds and in its knowing theatricality. 

Richard Goulding unleashes a performance of knock-out comic flair and energy as frustrated heir Dick Follywit. With his two deliciously daft sidekicks, he manages to fleece his (in more ways one) thrash-loving uncle (a wonderful, vigorously vague Ian Redford ) in a series of outrageous impostures: tweedy, strangulated toff; Northumbian burglar (don't ask); high-class call girl; and (eventually) a wafting luvvie in the play-within-a play at the climactic party which here, in a nice-reflexive twist, is in Jacobean fancy-dress. 

An attempted arrest by a real-life Constable is mistaken for experimental theatre by the on-stage audience who have just heard tell of the budding Royal Court. You won't be surprised to hear that to activate the fake wall of books that hides the uncle's safe, you have to fiddle with the teensy willy of a classical statue.  The RSC, meanwhile, has a whopping success on its hands. 

To 25 October; 0844 800 1110

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