A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is Thomas Middleton's great satire on the London of the early 17th century. He shows us a capital of greed, corruption and
general self-interest that can be taken as both a comment on the moral state of
that period and a mirror to our own times. It's a classic piece that still packs a powerful punch inside the velvet glove of some wonderful language and phrasing.
The basic central story is one of the triumph of true love over a corrupt
environment, played out via numerous story strands that interweave the lives all the grasping classes from the lowest to the highest. Pure young Moll (Hannah Young) is betrothed by her parents to the wealthy but loathsome Sir Walter Whorehound (Terence Wilton), though she's in love with Mr Touchwood (Nicholas Boulton).
Whorehound meanwhile is spending most of his dosh on his mistress Mrs Allwit (Anna Niland), another Touchwood (Simon Chandler) is bedding for Britain, Sir Oliver Kix (Graham Seed) and his wife (Sarah Belcher) are trying to make babies, and Moll's brother Tim (Josh Cohen) has come down from Cambridge with his tutor (Charles Millham) to whom he speaks almost exclusively in Latin.
This Almeida production, directed by Ben Harrison, maintains the original language of Middleton but otherwise is played in modern, or rather mixed, style. Greta Cuneo's set comprises a large curtained area representing the Allwits' house and a smaller area representing Moll's parents' goldsmith shop. Unfortunately, this carving up of the stage leaves the large cast with very little space to manoeuvre, particularly in the first act where we get myriad front-of-stage straight lines reminiscent of an amateur panto.
Furthermore, the opening is slow and lacklustre, with a pace that fails to pick up until Stephen Boxer's pseudo-narrator Allwit appears and lifts proceedings with his well-pointed characterisation and well-projected speech. There are some other flashes of the true guts of the text when the Kix family sparks across the stage and when the comedy duo of Russell Layton and Bruno Roubicek lets loose in their multiple roles.
Thankfully, the second act exhibits a lot more speed and depth, and the opening out of the set means that the actors appear less cramped. But why the karaoke rock songs? Surely this is directorial self-indulgence on Harrison's part? And, despite the laughs obtained from the spilling of Whorehound's guts, the fight sequence is feeble and unconvincing.
With a script like Middleton's, a cast of 19 and the resources of the Almeida, I was
looking forward to an excellent night out. Instead I got one that was barely passable -
and the empty seats in the stalls after the interval indicated that I was not
alone in my disappointment.