My first trip to the RSC's newly-reopened headquarters in Stratford Upon Avon isn't even for Shakespeare, but for Philip Massinger's 1632 play The City Madam in the Swan (there is method in't - I thought a Stratford trip was better employed for the shows least likely to make it to London next winter.) Actually it turned out a particularly topical trip today, as the script includes a gag about people who can predict the exact date of Doomsday. As it turns out none of the cast were taken by the Rapture mid-sentence but I guess if that had happened the RSC have an understudy system in place that would have been handy. Another piece of topical relevance may explain why the company have chosen to stage this play now: With a theme of newly-rich middle classes aspiring to be as good as royalty, Dominic Hill's production has more than one subtle reference to Kate Middleton (and a couple of very unsubtle ones.)
Jo Stone-Fewings, increasingly metamorphosing into Richard Briers, plays Luke Frugal, the former gambler treated like a servant by his rich, money-lending brother's family. When Lord Lacy (Nicholas Day) praises Luke, who's apparently reformed and preaches piety, Sir John Frugal (Christopher Godwin) tests this by apparently disappearing and leaving his brother in charge of the cash; at which point Luke shows his true colours. The new RSC ensemble (without the TM) throw themselves into the comedy and there's plenty of funny performances - Lucy Briggs-Owen and Matti Houghton are amusingly brattish as Sir John's spoilt daughters; Alex Hassell and Felix Hayes make a memorable double act as warring suitors to the girls; while Day's genial lord, Christopher Ettridge's camp steward and Sara "Philadelphia!" Crowe as the social-climbing lady of the house are also memorable. The production uses some clever stage magic which produces some lively moments but the play itself is only intermittently funny, the plot all over the place (the sub-plot that gives the play its title is barely relevant to anything.) Given this, and the overwhelming snobbery and mysogyny in the writing, it's not particularly surprising that this remains a relatively obscure work. Oh, and I know this is an important warning for some people: Puppets do feature in the denouement.
The City Madam by Philip Massinger is in repertory until the 4th of October at the Swan Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon.