London's mighty Almeida Theatre heads out on tour with Thomas Middleton's 17th-century carnal comedy A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. The all-new production launches tonight at the Oxford Playhouse before continuing until the end of April 2002 to five further venues.

Written in 1611, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is set in London during Lent, when the locals are becoming rather frenzied. Denied the flesh they crave, they explore other carnal pleasures. A rich and lurid portrait emerges of a society driven by lush, greed, appetite and above all - money.

The cast of 17 include Sarah Belcher, Nicholas Boulton, Lucy Burden, Josh Cohen, Russell Layton, Charles Milham, Anna Niland, Cathy Owen, Catherine Russell, James Saxon, Graham Seed and Hannah Young.

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is directed by Ben Harrison (who previously directed the award-winning Decky Does a Bronco on tour) and designed by Greta Cuneo, with lighting by Natasha Chivers, music by Philip Pinsky and sound by Matthew Berry.

Following Oxford, the touring production will visit to Malvern, Richmond, Bath, Huddersfield and Guildford.

Meanwhile, back in London, the Almeida's joint artistic directors Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid continue their farewell season at the theatre, currently residing at King's Cross while its Islington home is refurbished. King Lear, directed by Kent, runs until 20 April, and is followed by the world premiere of The Distance from Here, a new play by Neil LaBute, author of last year's hit The Shape of Things.

Since taking over in 1990, Kent and McDiarmid have transformed the Almeida from a tiny fringe theatre, which acted mainly as a receiving house, into a full-fledged producing outfit with an unrivalled reputation and a reach far beyond its north London home. In addition to its numerous tours, the Almeida has transferred productions to the West End, Broadway and around the world while at attracting big-name stars and critical acclaim. Amongst its many honours are no fewer than 45-odd theatre awards, including Olivier and Evening Standard awards for outstanding achievement.

Kent and McDiarmid, after 12 years at the theatre, will hand over the artistic director reins to Michael Attenborough in July 2002.

- by Terri Paddock