REVIEW: A Mad World My Masters, Barbican Theatre ✭✭

Last Updated on 7th May 2015

A Mad World My Masters at the Barbican Centre
Ellie Beaven (Mrs Littledick) and Dennis Herdman (Penitent Brothel) in A Mad World My Masters. Photo: Manuel Harlan

A Mad World My Masters
Barbican Theatre
5 May 2015
2 Stars
Book Tickets

“It seems to me like a virtually lost comedy classic – quite apart from being, beyond doubt, the filthiest play I’ve ever read; I kept thinking…he can’t possibly mean that, can he? But he almost always does – never have a man’s organs been mentioned so many times and in so many ways! There’s an almighty sexual charge in the writing, but the more I looked at it, the more it seemed to be a compendium of every type of comedy: full of slapstick but also very witty, with vaudevillian triple-decker puns, jokes about class, the sex-war, and every kind of human obsession – it’s even got a doctor sketch. It’s deeply satirical about sex and money, to such an extent you can’t tell whether Middleton is castigating our obsessions or actually celebrating them…it has a wonderful physicality to the comedy, and an archaic energy harnessed into the service of telling a story…it’s a provocative satire without the finger-wagging – because it’s amoral presentation of human failings is all wrapped up as a brilliant piece of entertainment…I imagine that when the play was first done it was really outrageous – and it still is. It’s unmistakeably the sound of someone revelling – a key word, revelling – in their own expertise and theatricality…But Middleton does it in such an uproarious way that you can’t help loving all these extraordinary characters as they strive to find love and fortune – aka sex and money – and end up with the unlikeliest of bedfellows.”

This is director Sean Foley discussing Thomas Middleton’s 1605 play, A Mad World My Masters, which Foley first directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2013 and which, following a long tour, curated by English Touring Theatre, is now playing at the Barbican.

This is a production for people who don’t go to the theatre.

It has everything: dirty, jazzy songs sung lustily; knob jokes; fake brawls; knickers tossed to the audience; knob jokes; sex scenes of all kinds; an altercation with a garbage bin; knob jokes; liquids tossed or splurged onto the audience; dress ups; knob jokes; raunchy scene changes; prostitutes masquerading as Nuns; knob jokes; big items being removed from small, dark places despite security measures including the penis on a small statue of David; fart jokes; and characters called Master Whopping Prospect, Penitent Brothel, Dick Follywit and Mr Littledick. Did I mention there were knob jokes?

Foley has thrown every comic possibility into the mix and yet…

For all the frenetic energy expended by the cast, this version of Middleton’s play, updated and set in 1950’s Soho, is acutely unfunny. The set pieces play out with vigorous precision, everything is choreographed to the Nth degree but there is, inexplicably, no charm displayed by any of the characters.


Sid James was a rascally, dirty old man. But he knew a thing or two about charm. No matter what heinous activity his character was engaged in, James could make you like him while he did it. It was a skill, an effortless style he brought to his endeavours. In completely different contexts, charm is often the key to playing broad, unkind comedy – whether that be Falstaff in Shakespeare’s plays or the activities of pretty much everyone in One Man, Two Guvnors.

Indeed, looking at this production, one could be forgiven for thinking that it was inspired by the National Theatre’s phenomenally successful run of One Man Two Guvnors – set in roughly the same time, with roughly the same sort of people, with a deaf manservant who could be a doppelganger for the scene stealing waiter, there is much in common. Too much perhaps. Strikingly, though, that original 2011 National Theatre cast knew all about charm and how to use it. The company, here, however are unaccountably charmless.

Unsubtle, charmless buffoonery is not that appealing. Breaking the fourth wall can work in good comedy, but it needs consistency of approach and an understanding of the convention shared by cast and audience. The overall impression here is not one of an over-reaching vision or concept behind the delivery of laughs – rather, it is a case of throw everything in the comic panoply in an effort to raise laughs. Coherence and Charm are treated as C-words here.

None of the characters are likeable except, remarkably, Ian Redford’s Sir Bounteous Peersucker, the one character who should be a pompous, odious old booby. We don’t need to like him; it’s okay, in fact, to loathe him, to enjoy loathing him. But we don’t. We do need to be charmed by the antics of Dick Follywit, the Littledicks, Truly Kidman, and Penitent Brothel but that need goes completely unsated.

There is engaging life and spritely humour from Linda John-Pierre’s lusty singer and the largely non-speaking presence of Jonny Weldon, Pearl Mackie and Lois Meleri-Jones. Nicholas Prasad (Master Muchly Minted) and Charlie Archer (Master Whopping Prospect) offer spurts of interest with their Tweedledum/Tweedledumber shtick.

But, on the whole, it is profoundly dull. Watching the cast go through their paces, you know that it should be funny, can see why it might be funny, but, disappointingly, it isn’t funny. It’s a bit like watching the insides of a car whirr in action – you see the effort, but have no sense of the stylish, sleek progression of the car as a whole.

Alice Power’s sets and costumes are perfect, a sense of zany frisson evident in every aspect of the appearance of the production. Johanna Town’s lighting is also excellent and there is great work from the five piece band, including musical director Candida Caldicot. The work of choreographer Polly Bennett and Fight choreographer Alison de Burgh is too obviously choreography to be as persuasive and convivial as no doubt was their intention. The best work in this area should come as a surprise, as a fresh novelty. That is not the case here where heavy-handedness is at a premium.

There were many in the audience who laughed loudly at prat falls or knob jokes delivered with all the subtlety of Margaret Thatcher in a Welsh mine; but, equally, droves of patrons scurried to the four winds when interval unshackled them from the Barbican.

Foley was correct. A Mad World My Masters is a “lost comedy classic”. His production does not alter that.


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