REVIEW: A Mad World My Masters at Cambridge Arts Theatre

A Mad World My Masters

A Mad World My Masters - Credit: Archant

Even though the frosting is delicious, this show is all icing and no cake.

It’s no surprise that Thomas Middleton’s 1605 play hasn’t been on the boards much in recent years.

The original work doesn’t have obvious themes for today. This production, set in Soho in the 1950s, looks wonderful but it isn’t funny. To work, it needs greater restoration than this.

Just layering on, albeit sublime, jazz singing every five minutes doesn’t disguise a dull play.

If we had the orchestra playing and Linda John-Pierre singing for two hours, now that would be bliss. She opened the show with Big Long Slidin’ Thing and closed it with Who Will the Next Thing Be. I wanted it to be her.

Middleton’s play is concerned with deception. Dick Follywit persuades his friends to pretend to be lords so they can take advantage of his rich relative’s hospitality. His uncle, Sir Bounteous Peersucker was originally named Sir Bounteous Progress to parody householders who liked to ingratiate themselves with the aristocracy when they were “on progress”. He is going to leave Follywit money in his will but won’t give him anything while he is alive so the lad is going to help himself.

However, the main humour circles round a parody of morality, the courtesan who pretends to be a bashful virgin; the seemingly shy, wholesome wife who is desperately plotting trysts with her lover. The jealous husband who engages a nun to tutor his wife and keep her chaste not realising that the nun is the courtesan in disguise and also being paid by the lovers.

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Men in the 14th and 15th centuries were obsessed with the purity of their wives. They regarded finding “an honest woman” the way we regard a Lottery win, a great prospect but unreliable.

Despite a lot of energy and some fine performances, the misunderstandings don’t quite work. When the jealous husband (Mr Littledick played by Ben Deery) overhears his wife (Ellie Beaven) making love and takes her screams of “yes” to mean she is agreeing with him. It’s just silly.

A pity, because most of the cast deserved so much better. Joe Bannister has real panache as Follywit. Sarah Ridgeway shows a comfortable range as Truly Kidman, (the London tart, the Irish nun and the reluctant posh bride) and Ishia Bennison has smooth aplomb as her mother Mrs Kidman (pimp and parent). Ian Redford is superb as Sir Bounteous Peersucker, a velvet performance.

By the end, we were all whooping and cheering because the last 15 minutes was so engaging. Sir Bounteous goes to a fancy-dress party and confuses a play with reality. He’s being robed but he thinks it’s just audience participation.

Also, the duet between Linda John-Pierre and Ellie Beaven of Cry Me a River was balm for the tortured soul.

The music is fun. The production opens well and ends well. Pity it was such a mess with Mr Inbetween.

English Touring Theatre presents A Mad World My Masters by Thomas Middleton, edited by Sean Foley and Phil Porter at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday (April 25).