A calll girl whose mum is a pimp, a conman in disguise living off his rich uncle and a sexstarved housewife are the central characters in the RSC's latest production, A Mad World My Masters.
Director Sean Foley has stylishly updated Thomas Middleton's little known Jacobean comedy to seedy 1950s Soho in London - complete with a live jazz singer and band as he makes his RSC debut at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The 48-year-old, who grew up in the West Midlands, says: "One of the main things was to find an era that suited the play. We wanted somewhere that rich people, prostitutes and scamsters hung out in the same place, and Soho in the 1950s made sense. It was a good place to set it. The 1950s are much more real to us.
"One of the other huge things in the play is the position of women pre-feminism, but women still wanted and needed the same things.
"The risque love triangle between an adulterous wife, her husband and her lover is the same as in Brief Encounter. The constraints facing 1950s housewives seems to fit very well with the constraints of the housewife of the 1600s.
"The play is about money and sex: how people fall in love with money and do anything for sex - and use money for sex."
Sean Foley and Phil Porter edited and adapted the original play, cutting out a fifth by removing any "innuendoes, references, and allusions to things no one has heard of any more".
He says: "It's not a sociological document about London in 1608, it's about these incredible characters.
"There's a wife in a boring marriage trying to arrange a time and place for adultery and a high-class escort, whose mum is her pimp, pretending to be a debutante so she can marry a rich man.
"The other side of the plot is about this trustafarian guy who is going to inherit his uncle's wealth when he dies. As his uncle is a complete snob, he pretends to be a Lord and goes to live off his uncle.
"It's brilliantly done by Middleton - outrageous, bonkers and fun. You see the two big sides of the plot slowly coming together."
The production was developed as part of the RSC's Studio programme, which supports established artists who want to develop innovative approaches to Shakespeare, classical text and new work.
Father-of-two Sean is amazed no-one has staged a big production of the play before.
He says: "I had not heard of it before. The Globe did a version 20 years ago and I do not think it's ever been done as a major production.
"I like the combination of broad comedy and wit.
"It combines that great tradition of British comedy - the saucy seaside postcard - and the very witty element of Shakespearean comedies.
It is brilliantly plotted like a farce."
But Sean says there was a worrying two hours after the last dress- rehearsal on the opening night.
He says: "When I saw an audience of a certain age coming in I thought: 'I'm not sure they're going to like it'. But it was a riot. The great British public like their humour. It's pretty racy and anarchic."
The director, who spent part of his childhood growing up in the region, still has family in the area.
He said: "My mum is from Ladywood and also lived in Selly Oak, and a couple of my uncles live in Birmingham. I was born in Lincolnshire and went to primary school in Dorridge, Solihull, before moving to Derbyshire and Kent."
One half of the double-act, the Right Size Company, with Hamish McColl, Sean is director of the five-times Olivier nominated production of The Ladykillers, What The Butler Saw, Armstong and Miller Live, Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress, Evolution with Nina Conti and 10 original comedies, including Stop Calling Me Vernon and The Play What I Wrote about Morecambe and Wise, performed with guest stars such as Ralph Fiennes and Sting.
He says: "Joan Rivers is absolutely lovely and one of the greatest performers I have ever met. It's an act and she's an actress."
Eighteen months ago Sean directed Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon in The Painkillers at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. He adds: "They were a kind of a dream team. I'd like to revive that and bring it to London."
But Sean is a man in demand and has a number of other projects on- the-go.
Not only is he the director of Harry Hill's new X Factor Musical, I Can't Sing! which opens next March, at the London Palladium; he is also directing Matthew Macfadyen and Stephen Mangan in Perfect Nonsense, an adaptation of PG Woodhouse's Jeeves and Wooster at the Duke of York's Theatre, London opening in November.
Sean never expected to be making his debut at the RSC. "It's something beyond my agenda," he explains. "I never thought of playing Hamlet at the RSC. I have just been creating my own company and making our own work. I always like working on new material or finding older material I feel a strong connection to.
"For me, it's all about trying to make an evening in the theatre a great night out - as funny and entertaining as possible."
The cast includes Richard Goulding as Dick Follywit, ITV's Midsomer Murders actor John Hopkins, who recently appeared in Stephen Poliakoff series' Dancing on the Edge, as Penitent Brothel, and Sarah Ridgeway, in the role of call-girl Truly Kidman.
Sean says working with his RSC cast has been "really delightful", most of whom are also in Shakespeare's revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus at The Swan this season.
But despite his credentials, The styling of A Mad World My Masters was influenced by retro TV dramas like Mad Men. "It's quite cool," says Sean.
His carefully selected 1950s jazz playlist includes Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do by Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington's Cry Me a River. "Each song reflects how one of the characters is feeling," he explains. "We have a wonderful jazz singer called Linda John Pierre, a live jazz band and the comedy feels very live."
And the show has been designed by Sean's wife, Alice Power. "She designs all my shows," he says.
The couple, who live in Stoke Newington, first met when Sean moved to London 23 years ago and have two daughters, aged 15 and 12.
"My daughters saw the play on Saturday and loved it. It was very, very nice.
"The actress, who plays Truly Kidman's mother and pimp, said to them afterwards: 'Did you think it was a bit rude?' and the 12-year- old said: 'I am used to it by now'..."
A Mad World My Masters runs at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon- Avon until October 25. Box Office 0844 800 1110/ www.rsc.org.uk.
'"I like the combination of broad comedy and wit. It combines that great tradition of British comedy - the saucy seaside postcard - and the very witty element of Shakespearean comedies. It is brilliantly plotted like a farce SEAN FOLEY
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