Volpone, the RSC bring Ben Jonson back to the Swan with his most famous farce, The Alchemist. It was Jonson's way of helping the London of 1610 deal with its biggest horror, the annual return of the Plague, through comedy: Every summer the wealthy would escape the city for their country homes away from all the death, and so at the start of the play does Lovewit (Hywel Morgan,) leaving his servant Jeremy in charge of his townhouse. But Jeremy is actually the con-man Face, who plans to use the house as his base of operations to trick the greedy and gullible out of their cash. After he stole his scenes in her AsYou Like It last year, director Polly Findlay brings Ken Nwosu back to Stratford-upon-Avon with her to play a frenetic Face, who acts as the front-man for a con that promises to turn base metal into gold.
His cohorts are Subtle (Mark Lockyer,) who will play the titular mysterious
scientist, and Dol Common (Siobhan McSweeney,) who will try to keep the other two
from fighting with each other and bringing the whole scheme crashing down.
There's a well-assembled cast of dodgy characters all eager for the get-rich-quick
scheme, starting with Joshua McCord as grubby gambler Dapper, and the most likeable
of the gulls, Abel Drugger (Richard Leeming,) a tobacconist seeking supernatural
advice on how to lay out his shop. The religious life proves as greedy as any other,
with a pair of monks (Timothy Speyer and a jumpy John Cummins) joining in the quest
for the Philosopher's Stone.
It's becoming obvious that Tom McCall has no fear of the big performance, and he
delivers a bonkers Kastril, the "angry boy" who in actual fact has just got the idea
that being angry is fashionable, and wants lessons in arguing. He also comes with a
sister, the widow Pliant (Rosa Robson's confused stares making the best of a slight
part,) whose appearance drives a new wedge between the crooks as Face and Subtle
fight over her affections, and try to keep Dol out of this part of the scheme.
There's a lot of nice touches in Findlay's production - hanging over Helen Goddard's
set is a stuffed crocodile that provides a good running joke, and this time it's
McSweeney who's the regular scene-stealer among the central trio, especially in the
scene where she attempts to impersonate the queen of the fairies. The pace isn't
always what it could be though, especially at the start before the various gulls
start turning up all at the same time; and a couple of flourishes - composer Corin
Buckeridge's overture takes in a number of classic movie themes, and the play ends
with a modern-dress twist - don't quite come off. It's a funny few hours, but not
quite as much chaotic fun as it might have been.
The Alchemist by Ben Jonson is booking in repertory until the 6th of August at the
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon; then from the 2nd of September to the 1st of
October at the Barbican Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.