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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Alchemist
Olivier Theatre Autumn 2006

Ben Jonson's con-men comedy lies somewhere on the historic path from Roman wily-slave farces to the another-fine-mess adventures of Laurel and Hardy. A trio of fraudsters have taken over a London house abandoned by its master from fear of plague, and prey on a cross-section of gullible marks until their various plots begin getting in each other's way.

So a greedy old man is parted from his money with promises of the Philosopher's Stone that will bring untold riches and sexual power, a merchant pays for advice on increasing the feng shui of his shop, one bumpkin is promised a visit from the queen of the fairies to make him lucky at gambling and another pays for lessons in picking fights like a true Londoner, and so on.

Factor in a couple of Anabaptists who are not above cheating the unfaithful and a randy Spanish tourist, and there is plenty of scope for both the comedy of deceit and the farce of keeping so many balls in the air at once.

And there's also the opportunity for actors to loosen their stays and enjoy themselves. Both Simon Russell Beale as the shill and Alex Jennings as the con man have fun playing different personas for each of their marks, and then having to switch back and forth among them at short notice.

To meet the expectations of his patsies in this modern dress staging, Jennings plays either a stoned hippie, a mad scientist, or a Scots academic, while Russell Beale is variously a suave military man, a hunched Igor-figure and a modest butler. And meanwhile Lesley Manville as their partner switches from whore to mad bluestocking to fairy queen.

(The modernisation allows for a few other interpolated gags, generally providing easy but harmless laughs. A couple of familiar contemporary faces are used to illustrate some Jonson jokes, and that guy looking for street smarts is taught some West Indian gestures and insults.)

Ian Richardson stands out among the conned as the dirty old man whose dreams of riches and lasciviousness are expressed in a lush poetry that almost ennobles them.

The only criticism of Nicholas Hytner's direction is that it doesn't build. Individual scenes are as funny as you could want, but there's no rhythm to them, and things don't get more farcically frantic as they go along, not even when the gulls start coming inconveniently one-upon-another or when the homeowner returns at just the wrong time.

Indeed, the last hour, which should be the most frantic and laugh-a-second part of the night, is the slowest, with the energy level dropping just when it should threaten to spin out of control.

Go for the fun along the way, and be prepared for a bit of a letdown when it doesn't actually go anywhere.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   The Alchemist - National Theatre 2006
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