If A Mad World, My Masters were a person, it would be the sort of jovial inebriate who welcomes you as if you were an old friend, presses a glass into your hand, tells a filthy but genuinely funny story, then enfolds you in a hug and kisses you on both cheeks (probably taking the opportunity to cop a quick feel in the process).
At a shade under three hours, it's a long piece, but it doesn't feel it: it's the sort of show that carries you along on a wave of merriment from beginning to end. I started giggling within seconds of curtain up, and didn't really stop.
It's ribald and rude – Middleton (ably aided and abetted by script editors Sean Foley, who also directs, and Phil Porter) has a gift for finding the innuendo in everything – but also clever and witty: the sort of thing one might imagine resulting if, say, Tom Stoppard were to try his hand at writing a Carry On film.
The RSC's lively production proves that this 17th Century gem is more than worthy of a revival. The update to 1950s Soho is inspired: it sets the scene for precisely the right combination of surface respectability and seething desires underneath. There are disguises, deception, and trickery galore, and barely a character in the whole thing who isn't driven by some combination of lechery and avarice.
Despite that, you can't help liking them. Richard Goulding is splendid as Dick Follywit, the impoverished bachelor determined to leave no stone unturned in his efforts to get a share of his rich uncle's wealth.
The uncle in question, Sir Bounteous Peersucker (Ian Redford, who constantly reminded me of the late lamented Richard Griffiths) is having a whale of a time entertaining the rich and noble (or so he thinks), though his nephew isn't the only one with an eye on the family jewels: he's also being milked by Truly Kidman (the delightful Sarah Ridgeway), a tart with a not just a heart but also a brain and a sound business sense. And she's also busy masquerading as a nun to help the not-quite-as-demure-as-she-seems Mrs Littledick (Ellie Beaven) evade the watchful eye of her jealous husband (Steffan Rhodri) to meet with Mr Penitent Brothel (John Hopkins)...
The excellent supporting cast are too numerous to mention by name, though I must confess to a soft spot for Richard Durden as Sir Bounteous' faithful (well, almost) doddery old family retainer Spunky.
Subtle it isn't – but then it isn't trying to be. It's a glorious, uproarious, boisterous laugh-fest that'll make you thoroughly glad you booked a ticket. If you can get a seat in the front row, you may even be one of the lucky few that a member of the cast bestows a drink on – though I don't absolutely guarantee it'll still be in the glass by the time it gets to you!
- Meriel Patrick