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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Alchemist
Barbican Theatre  Autumn 2016

In a short season of Shakespeare's contemporaries, along with Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, the RSC offers a production of Ben Jonson's comedy that may be a little slow in starting but works its way up to full farcical delight. 

That slow start is inevitable, given the nature of the plot. Three con artists have taken over an abandoned London house and set themselves up as, variously, a military man, a psychic, a lead-into-gold alchemist, a tutor in quarrelling and fighting, a mad bluestocking, matchmakers, pimps, feng shui interior designers and the Queen of the Fairies, depending on what will draw the most money from the purses of a half-dozen marks they assemble. 

It inevitably takes the playwright a while to set up the premise and introduce each of the plot lines, and while the victims themselves are funny – notably Ian Redford as Sir Epicure Mammon, who can wax eloquent with equally lascivious anticipation about gold, food or women – it really isn't until they all start showing up at the same time that the high-energy farce gets going. 

The premise that two or more people who absolutely must not meet are in constant danger of meeting is a classic structure for stage farce, and Ben Jonson compounds it by forcing the plotters to struggle to keep track of who they're pretending to be and which fraud they're perpetrating at any given moment. 

It might have been nice if director Polly Findlay had found ways for Ken Nwosu, Mark Lockyer and Siobhan McSweeney as the con-persons to generate some more physical comedy of their own in the opening scenes, especially since Jonson plants the suggestion that they don't fully trust each other. 

But the director does turn them loose once things start to get out of control, and all three are a delight to watch in their varying stages of panic and spur-of-the-moment resourcefulness. 

They are also generous enough to allow others to steal scenes from them as their victims also get caught up in the frantic action.  Along with Ian Redford's increasingly Falstaffian Sir Epicure, great comic moments are generated by Tom McCall as the would-be quarreller channelling Rik Mayall in wild-eyed madness, Tim Samuels as (it would appear) a randy Spaniard, and even Rosa Robson, quietly finding all the deadpan humour in a supposedly demure widow.

Allow the alchemist's furnaces time to warm up and The Alchemist will produce comic gold.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review -  The Alchemist  - RSC at Barbican Theatre 2016  



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