"Very promising Jonson at Rosie"
by Tom Donaldson on 26/03/10

Ben Jonson's play is a tricky beast - a combination of sinewy verse and knock-about comedy. A self-declared 'tripartite" of con artists have taken over a house in London and employ numerous methods (and identities) to wring a list of greedy and ambitious gulls for all there worth. A lawyer, a tobacconist and a representative of the Church of Amsterdam are among the victims, though the biggest potential pay-off resides with Sir Epicure Mammon, to whom the Philosopher's stone has been
Promised. Great mileage is brought out of Face, Subtle and Dol's ducking and diving between the various tricks as their willing victims flood through the door one after the other. Only when the owner of the house reappears unannounced does the con-artistry so efficiently deployed against the gulls turn in on itself.

The Theatre of Bray's production is a qualified success, and one saved by the strength of a talented and versatile ensemble. Kevin Millington is a hilarious Subtle - one minute a witch doctor or a Evangelical preacher, the next a learned English gentleman of casting. Emma Vane gives streetwise Dol Common a grounded energy and has great delight in sending the character's class pretensions as a lusty Librarian and 'Queen' of Fairy. Christopher Tester's Face similarly carries a number of identities with aplomb - his cockney wide boy enjoys the status shift of being gull-mentor Captain Face and obviously resents having to play the other extreme as laboratory lackey Lungs, played here as a foil to Subtle's preacher as a Texan hic crossed with Young Frankenstein's Igor to hilarious effect. The rest of the gulls, most of whom have doubling responsibilities are also strong - Daniel Moore makes for a dashing hubristic Sir Epicure Mammon and undercuts himself beautifully, while Alex Williams,Mark Joseph and Rose McPhilemy distinguish themselves very well.

So why the need for qualification? Well, though the performances are strong, the pacing and tone of the show is an issue. Speed has obviously been encouraged to facilitate the physical comedy, but this sometimes makes the story-telling problematic. Those few moments in the first half (increasingly in the second)
where the cast take their collective foot off the gas, we get a far greater sense of the character's motivations and relationships. Dol's being prepped for the arrival of a Spanish count and the final rupture of the tripartite are just two of many such moments where some dramatic weight dares to inhabit the stage before the next 'trick'-these moments save the character's from caricature.

Also, some of what is obviously intended as 'farce' doesn't marry with the words of the play - the opening scene particularly suffers from being overloaded with largely unnecessary fight choreography which serves more to distract from the story than reassure us Jonson's play is comic. A clearer sense of direction and delineating moments where the momentum shifts needs to be found, though this will probably occur organically as the run progresses.

James Perkin's set deserves a commendation - serving multiple uses with great art and economy, it suits the Rosemary Branch's blackbox space brilliantly well. The modern updating almost works - we have recognisable 'types' recast here as city bankers etc - but certain touches like the traditional Spanish gown and money pouches muddies the aesthetic - obviously going for timeless but more hitting unclear.

Overall, a very funny production that comes highly recommended, but one that definitely needs to find it's directorial clarity.

Add Your review?

Have your say, add your review

Other recent reviews of The Alchemist
The Alchemist
Watch Out! Alchemist On Heat.. by Steve Hill
The Alchemist
Poor stab at The Alchemist by remotegoat reviewer