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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