It is often said that there are only seven stories, and The City Madam is certainly a good example. Borrowing from everything from Measure for Measure to the Prodigal Son, Massinger’s play still manages to feel fresh.
Whether this freshness should be credited to the author or to director Dominic Hill is not really a discussion that needs to be had. A good number of the most enjoyable moments come from newer elements, and it is clear what Hill wants this play to be – a modern day parable sweetened with comedy.
Lovely little anachronisms are peppered throughout the play, but never overshadow the period tone. The resentful exclamation of Shav’em the prostitute (I know, I know) that she will “Never ride in a carriage” while staring jealously at Kate Middleton on the cover of Hello magazine is a particularly nice touch, reminding us of the modern messages in this old text.
In the first half, comedic moments comes thick and fast, with humour mostly derived from the way in which the lines are spoken rather than the dialogue itself. The cast are brilliant at combining the physical with the written, using limbs and shrieks to further emphasise the grotesque nature of their characters. The Frugal Women in particular contort their faces so well I’m sure they must have aching cheeks and eyebrows after each scene.
All performances are excellent, with notable turns from Sarah Crowe as Lady Frugal (or the madam in question) and Jo Stone-Fewings as Luke. Both cope with comedy as well as emotion and convince despite Massinger’s quick character changes. The double act of Alex Hassell’s Sir Maurice and Felix Haye’s Mr Plenty is also particularly amusing, and has the right combination of hyperbolic camp and northern gruffness. The second half lags somewhat and I think most of the issues derive from not having enough of these two in it.
One of the stand out moments comes during the play’s masque. Clever uses of props and puppetry take centre stage and the audience are reduced to children, watching with excitement as further magical creatures emerge from the central dining table. It is beautiful to observe such a clever interlude, and it saves the play’s finale from being overly morose.
While I enjoyed the play immensely it did feel confused at times, never really knowing whether it was supposed to be a camp comedic romp or a moralistic tale about the danger of greed. It is clear that Hill wants us to understand the moral message of this play, however, in doing so, we are robbed of some enjoyment. It is also hard to swallow the play as a serious parable when everything else is so over the top and camp. Towards the dénouement it becomes difficult to know when we are supposed to laugh – has Luke gone mad or is he acting for others? Should we revel in the Frugal’s misery, even considering their previous behaviour?
There is probably a reason this play is so rarely performed: the complicated plot isn’t supported by a good enough use of language. However, a combination of physical comedy, beautiful costumes and interesting design ensures that this is still an enjoyable evening out – even if it’s nicer to look at than listen to.
Until October 4th at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon