Philip Massinger is a playwright few regular theatregoers will have encountered and it is yet again a feather in the cap of the Royal Shakespeare Company that they bring back to the repertoire pieces that could all too easily be lost (other than to the world of academe). Running alongside the excellent Cardenio, Dominic Hill's punchy production of The City Madam makes a strong case for seeing Massinger make more frequent returns to UK theatres.
It is a complicated tale of a seventeenth century London family – the Frugals – the social-climbing wife, the wealthy but much put upon husband, their two attention-seeking daughters and an uncle who has fallen on hard times. We also encounter a rich variety of other characters – servants on the make, businessmen who have run out of credit, noblemen trying to protect their estates and many more. This all comes together in a very well-crafted satire of London in the time of Charles I – and, importantly, it still has many resonances for our own time.
With over 30 characters to portray, this is very much an ensemble piece. There is excellent character work from Christopher Ettridge, Simeon Moore, Nicholas Day and many others. Sara Crowe is spot-on with her nuanced exaggerations for Lady Frugal – always allowing the audience to feel some sympathy for what could be a very unlikeable individual. The production is held together by a masterful performance from Jo Stone-Fewings as Luke Frugal - an extremely complex character (with echos of Tartuffe, Volpone and many others) – he has the necessary skill to convey the various layers of the character and to take us with him on the journey he undergoes.
The production is sumptuously designed by Tom Piper – the costuming is exquisite. There are neat uses of anachronistic props and costume items that provide that telling link between the world of the play and our own. Dan Jones' music is pitch-perfect matching the shifting moods and social classes of the play effortlessly. As is being shown by the current RSC season, the creative and technical teams are really at the top of their games at the moment.
At the moment, the Swan Theatre is hosting two contrasting but equally satisfying theatrical rarities – both well worth seeing. The RSC are to be congratulated on remaining so committed to bringing neglected gems back to life – long may that continue.