‘It’s the funniest thing you will ever see on stage’

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Transport yourself for two hours into a world filled with naughty fun from the 1950s

‘Where glamour rubs up against filth, and likes it’ may well be the promotional line for this week’s production at the Grand Theatre.

A scene from A Mad World My Masters, Sarah Ridgeway and Ellie Beavan

A scene from A Mad World My Masters, Sarah Ridgeway and Ellie Beavan

But it could just as well be a new slogan for Blackpool’s tourism chiefs.

Instead of 2015 Fylde, A Mad World My Masters takes place in 1950s Soho, where the aristocracy mix with musicians, prostitutes and racketeers in a happy melting pot.

Getting a behind the scenes look at the play at English Touring Theatre’s rehearsal rooms in London, I was sold­ before even seeing a brief excerpt – on the costumes alone.

Frilly 50s petticoats and full­-skirted dresses battle for space with sharp suits, all hung on rails for this partnership production with the Royal Shakespeare Company, ready to head out on the road.

You will not stop laughing for two hours

And for added measure, there’s a full set of Jacobean outfits – from the hallowed RSC’s wardrobe collection ­ to dress a party scene in A Mad World, with a witty nod to the time the piece was originally written, by 17th Century playwright Thomas Middleton.

The RSC has given the original a reworking, akin to that the National Theatre gave to Goldini’s The Two Servants of One Master in creating One Man, Two Guvnors, which has played the capital and national tours, to huge success... Even to the extent of adding a live jazz band and singer to the proceedings, where One Man has skiffle.

From what I saw at the Southwark rehearsal rooms, theatregoers can expect to be thrown headlong into the action at the Flamingo Club, around which much of the story revolves – which handily creates a suitable setting for the live jazz band and sumptuous vocals of Linda John Pierre. She’s worth the ticket price alone on what I briefly heard in rehearsal.

With a strong drink and a cigarette in hand (it is the 50s), you won’t be able to relax for long as chaos soon ensues.

Dick Follywit is out to make money, but not by legitimate means. He’s promised his uncle Sir Bounteous Peersucker’s fortunes, on his death, but young Dick doesn’t want to wait.

The characters’ names alone set the tone for A Mad World; there’s also Master Whopping Prospect and Penitent Brothel, to name a few.

But back to the plot. Dashing bachelor Dick turns conman to get hold of the cash, becoming a lord, a call girl and a poor actor along his way, when he crosses paths with a scamming tart who is playing a similar game.

Joe Bannister promises an energetic turn as Dick, and is very comfortable in the role of the handsome fool, adding: “It’s right up my street as a part, he’s just a big show off.”

Explaining how A Mad World works for contemporary audiences, Joe said: “Sean, our director, pointed out that it has almost every classic comedy situation in the original play, and it has been given a music hall, stand-up feel.

“It’s very much a comic romp and very accessible to a modern audience because of that. It involves the audience as well, and is a really, really good night out.”

And Mad World comes to Blackpool with a pedigree. It was the ‘surprise hit’ of the Stratford theatre company’s 2013 programme.

As the ‘bounteous’ uncle, Ian Redford said: “Joe and I went back to Stratford last year, and for the whole time I was running into people saying it was the best RSC thing they had seen for a while.

“There’s an element of camp, Carry On­style acting, and of vaudeville; it’s almost classic end of the pier show comedy, so people in Blackpool should enjoy it. If the audience can get over the fact it’s RSC and a 17th Century play, and see it as something from today they will love it.”

Joe added: “People have this impression of the RSC as being stiff upper-lipped, but this is filthy, rude and bright.”

Besides all that, the main word the cast and director Sean Foley attribute to A Mad World is ‘fun’.

Sean, who directed the recent X Factor musical I Can’t Sing and also edited the original Middleton text, with Phil Porter, for this production, said: “It’s a very, very funny play which, with a big audience, starts rocking.

“The way we have done the show, with the band and various numbers throughout the show it has the fun of a musical and great visual gags.

“It’s great that it’s having a second life with the tour, it was the surprise hit of the season with RSC, and in places which don’t necessarily see that kind of work.

“All too often people think theatre isn’t for them, which I’m totally against. I do shows for people to enjoy themselves. It’s a night out not a lesson... No one goes to the cinema to be educated, just to see a good film.

“I really hope people will have as much fun watching it on the tour as those who saw it in Stratford did.”

But back to those dresses, and the two lucky ladies who get the lion’s share of the great gowns.

Ellie Beaven and Sarah Ridgeway play a stifled wife and a street­wise prostitute.

“Oh, the dresses, they were made for us at Stratford, so it was a worry coming back to them for fittings,” Ellie said. “One of my dresses, when we finished last time, someone had rung the RSC asking to buy it and was really upset to be told no – they’re that gorgeous.”

Even Sarah’s been told she can’t have one of her costumes, as they have to go into the RSC stores for revivals of the show, like this tour, or other productions.

But there’s more to their characters than pretty frocks, they’re very much in the power positions – especially Truly.

“She facilitates those around her to get what they want, men and money, and maybe love – but mainly money and sex,” Sarah said.

“I think we become friends,” Ellie added. “It starts as a business transaction, but moves on.

“I’m always with my jealous husband and Truly is the witty one who, as well as plotting everyone else’s lives and being a mistress, is planning her own scheme.”

And when it comes to summing up why people should come to see them in action, the women’s excitement at the prospect is clear: “You will not stop laughing for two hours,” Sarah said.

“It’s the funniest thing you will ever see,” Ellie added.

“It will lift your week,” Sarah added.

“And transport you into a different world for two hours of naughty fun,” Ellie interrupted.

“I can’t think of anything else you’d want, it’s got comedy, plotting, heart, music, costumes and dancing.”

Who could ask for anything more?

A Mad World My Masters is at the Grand Theatre, Church Street, Blackpool, Thursday to Saturday, various times.

Call (01253) 290190 for tickets.