The Alchemist, Rose Playhouse


When butler Jeremy’s master goes out of town, he transforms himself into Captain Face and recruits his comrade in deceit, Subtle the Alchemist, to help him make a quick buck from gullible townsfolk. Aided by the local prozzie Doll Common, the three create bespoke schemes for each potential customer. Their plans spiral out of control and the risk of discovery becomes all too real in typical Jacobean comedy format, but also typical of the style, it all ends well – or as much as it can for the victims of their scams. With jokes that come quick and fast in this surprisingly straightforward story, it’s a fun, light-hearted play that needs clear direction to succeed.

Though The Alchemist can be considered Ben Jonson’s best play, it doesn’t get staged often. The slapstick comedy satirising a cross section of Jacobean society is swift, easy to follow and jolly so it deserves much more stage time than it receives. In Mercurius’ strongest of their last three productions, an energetic cast fully commit to the stock characters’ hijinks and trickery with clear staging and character doubling. Jenny Eastop’s direction is tight and precise, though altering the time period from the original is gratuitous and occasionally inconsistent with the text. This light production of a rarely staged play is a midsummer treat with few shortcomings.

The cast of eight are a generally tight ensemble with good chemistry. Peter Wicks as Jeremy/Captain Face has a commanding presence and wonderful speaking voice that is easily watchable. Benjamin Garrison as Subtle is a delightfully flamboyant foil but with the character having less to lose, he has less depth. Alec Bennie as Surly is the star of the supporting roles, playing the posh sceptic with a dry, steely wit. Charlie Ryall is strong as the feisty nun Ananias, but her disinterested Widow Pliant is harder to engage with.

Eastop’s choosing to set the play in the 1800s is justified in the programme notes, but with a play that is so undeniably Jacobean in its style, the costumes (that are in a poorly made/maintained state and betray a lack of time and/or budget) look out of place, particularly next to some set pieces that look much older. Nothing other than the characters’ dress indicate a change in time period, and as such, the adaptation contributes nothing to the understanding of the play. She also, nonsensically, reinvents two protestant characters as nuns who have derogatory dialogue about the Catholic Church. Despite the change in setting, this choice is painfully jarring. Otherwise, Eastop’s direction and choreography is well paced and takes advantage of the script’s inherent comedy.

This production suits the Rose Playhouse’s unique structure well, with the rear of the site being used occasionally for comic effect. Placing most of the action on the small stage in close proximity to the audience makes these larger than life characters all the more exaggerated, further emphasising the stereotypes that the play relies on for laughs. With a good cast and intuition for light comedy, The Alchemist makes for some excellent entertainment.

The Alchemist runs through 30 June.

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The Devil is an Ass, Rose Playhouse

rsz_devil-is-an-ass-700x455Enthusiastic little devil Pug wants a crack at antagonizing mortals, but big man Satan isn’t sure he’s ready. After some discussion, Pug eventually gets his way and finds himself in London, where he is encouraged to bother greedy Fabian Fitzdottrell, an odd little man obsessed with using the dark arts to get rich. Taking up a position as his servant, Pug witnesses all sorts of bad behaviour and scheming from Fitzdottrell and the various con men after his money. Ben Jonson’s The Devil is an Ass is less about the devil and more about devilment, and Mercurius bring this farcical, Jacobean world to life with a snappy edit, good energy and some excellent performances in original dress.

At just over an hour, the edited script becomes focused on plot points rather than character development, but it works well for this story consisting of constant attempts at trickery that go wrong. Short, energetic scenes keep the action ticking along nicely in The Rose’s intimate staging area; only two moments are staged at the back of the archaeological site across the pool of water preserving the theatre’s remains. It’s a shame to rarely this part of such a unique venue, particularly as it would have expedited some of the longer transitions. Director Jenny Eastop’s use of fabric drapes and a few wooden chairs to create various locations is lovely though, particularly when arranged to make windows across a courtyard from which handsome Wittipol (Monty D’Inverno) attempts to woo Fitzdottrell’s much abused wife (Beth Eyre). Handy signs also add clarity and sumptuousness to a story driven by money and deception.

The men lead in the performances, with Michael Watson-Gray as the hapless Fitzdottrell who is unable to decline Meercraft’s (Benjamin Garrison) blatant exploitation of his greediness. Watson-Gray’s Fitzdottrell is also wonderfully abhorrent in the way he treats his wife and the men that he, in turn, also tries to con. Garrison gives a performance nearly identical to the style of Jack Whitehall, but this professional debut of a recent graduate shows confidence, presence and style. D’Inverno is delightful disguised as a Spanish lady in his attempts to get some alone time with Mistress Fitzdottrell, and Nicholas Oliver as Ambler is also very good. Some of the other performances lack confidence and seem unsure about handling the text, but do not detract from the others much.

Rather than forcing this play into an unrelated time period, Eastop wisely focuses on the text-based comedy and leaves the setting in its original time and place. As Pug becomes more and more baffled by the antics of these mere mortals and misses the roaring fires of home, his frustration eventually explodes after a run in with a lady of fashion, of which there is no greater hell. With a focus on money as much as the dark arts, there is some contemporary relevance, but it is very much a relic of its time. There are definitely some great choices in Mercurius’ funny production of Jonson’s rarely staged play that makes it worth seeing in this very special venue.

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A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, The Rose Playhouse

A CHASTE MAID OF CHEAPSIDE March 2015Compared to the number of Shakespeare productions that must be staged in London every year, his Jacobean and Elizabethan contemporaries are rarely produced. The opportunity to see Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside in the ruins of The Rose Theatre, built in 1587, is a most rare one indeed.

The Rose is an archeological treasure with a small performance space overlooking to excavated remains. It is not the most comfortable of spaces – there is no heating or toilets, but the volunteer staff members provide the audience with blankets and Shakespeare’s Globe allows Rose audiences to use their facilities. Despite the potential for discomfort, it remains one of the most unique performance venues in London. It has the potential to dramatically emphasize a play and its production values, but directors do not always fully exploit the venue’s potential.

Set in the 1950’s, this version of A Chaste Maid in Cheapside aims to draw attention to post-war sexual frivolity and a rising middle class. Running at just over an hour, this edit focuses on the sex and relationship politics of the characters. The 1950’s aspect is conveyed solely through costume and music. Red is a dominant colour, matching the rope lights that outline the theatre’s excavated foundations, the set’s archways, and the themes of love, lust and anger. The goal of portraying a more powerful middle class does not particularly come across, but that is due to a middle class not existing at the time the play was written even though some of the characters are driven by money. The era’s post-war positivity and rebellious youth does suit this script very well, however.

Overall, the performances are very good. In particular, Alana Ross and Fergus Leathem are fantastically funny as Sir and Lady Kix. Richard Reed and Harry Russell, who play the brothers Touchwood, compliment each other well. Reed plays a cockney wide boy marketing his virility to barren couples and Russell is a wide-eyed young lover. Both play their parts with energy, enthusiasm and commitment. Commendably, casting was age-appropriate to the role. The pace of line delivery takes some time to pick up, but the second half of the play is delightfully quick.

This script has been heavily edited. Even though the story has been pared down to focus on the sexual dynamics, it did not leave much scope for character development. Quite a lot of exposition has been lost, which makes the action feel artificial and rushed. Even an extra half an hour would have given this production more substance.

The opportunities to see this play are rare and there are certainly some very good production elements in this adaptation, but the editing lets it down. The concept can feel tacked on at points, particularly with large chunks of text missing. Fortunately the second half and the performances help compensate, as does the novelty of the Rose itself.

Intention: ☆☆☆☆

Outcome: ☆☆

Star Rating: ☆☆☆

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