A Mad World My Masters

Barbican Theatre, London

© Manuel Harlan

© Manuel Harlan

Sean Foley’s reconstituted Thomas Middleton comedy of sex, money, power leaves no comic stone unturned in its desire to make it attractive and accessible to new audiences.

As filthy in innuendo as any Carry On farce, Foley claims A Mad World to be a true precursor to Joe Orton’s anarchic world of sexual and social subversion. If only!

Foley is/was co-partner of The Right Size who with Hamish McColl gave us the delirious Morecambe & Wise West End spoof, The Play What I wrote. At the time, 2001, I celebrated it as `recklessly tasteless’.

Much the same could be said of this latest though, sadly, for this viewer, without the same rib-tickling success. Foley with Phil Porter makes their Mad World as ribald as any Donald Mcgill seaside postcard. Any moment, you expect, `Oh missus’ , to come fluttering off the stage accompanied by a smirk and camp aside.

So hectic and broadly signposted is Foley’s comic transposing of 17th century London to 1950s Soho that much of what passes for Middleton’s underlying tale of generational, marital, financial and sexual deceit disappears in an orgy of mugging, prat-falls, double takes and double disguises.

© Manuel Harlan

© Manuel Harlan

Out of the mayhem some rewarding moments do emerge. Ian Bedford’s sub-tumescent squire, Sir Bounteous Peersucker is a delight as is the aged retainer of David Rubin’s shambling Spunky (though a bit of a steal from similar in Nick Hytner’s updated Goldoni, One Man Two Guvnors). Joe Bannister’s Dick Follywit – `Oh, I am good’ – shines as a swivel-hipped batchelor-on-the-make with an ease of voice and cross gendered charm that marks him out as a future musical leading man.

Indeed, best of all in a show notable for its Fifties bee-bop and rhythm n’ blues songbook soundscape is the live band and remarkable vocal tones of singer, Linda John-Pierre, a red hot momma in the best tradition of Bessie Smith.

Perhaps Foley should have gone the whole hog and turned A Mad World into a fully fledged musical. It’s almost one now.

I should report that others around me, including my companion, were loving it for its downright silliness. Just call me old-fashioned…

Runs in the Barbican Theatre to May 9, 2015

First published in Reviewsgate May 2015