5th Dec, 2016

The Alchemist - RSC Swan Theatre, Stratford - Review

Stratford Editorial 3rd Jun, 2016 Updated: 28th Oct, 2016

The Alchemist

RSC Swan Theatre

THE MASTER is away and the house is open for misdeeds, shady business and fun in this fabulously comic romp through Ben Jonson’s sharp-witted examination of fraudsters and the gullible grotesques who make life so easy for them.

Polly Findlay’s relentlessly energetic production presents a fine procession of the greedy and the stupid falling over themselves to line the pockets of confidence tricksters Face, Subtle and Dol Common (three perfectly matched performances from Ken Nwosu, Mark Lockyer and Siobhan McSweeney).

The chemistry between Face and Subtle in particular drives the action along accelerating through rip-off after rip-off toward a terrific free-for-all finale when the whole nest of plots rapidly falls apart. It’s a wonderful double study in thinking on your feet and having the sheer effrontery to brazen out anyone daft enough to see through the flannel.

Ian Redford’s gloiously verbose Epicure is perhaps the pick of those whose dreams are so artfully milked by the trio of rogues, but mention should also go to John Cummins’ mad monk Ananias and Tom McCall’s confrontation-hungry Kastril.

There are strong showings all round as a talented cast make the most of a wonderful range of gold-chasers, the credulous and the lovelorn. In these days of internet scams and telephone fraudsters, it’s not hard to see how Jonson’s placing of at least part of the blame at the door of the so-easily-fooled has always resonated and will continue to do so. When the victims are this daft, you can’t beat yourself up too much about admiring the perpetrators.

Superbly choreographed and making full use of the Swan’s many levels and surprise entrances, this production never holds back from taking laughs wherever it can. It is slick, stylish and, above all, very funny.

The only puzzling moment comes right at the end when, under the unexpected glare of the houselights, Ken Nwosu drops both character and costume to embark on a tot-up of the Swan’s house takings for the night. It’s a confusing ploy. Perhaps we’re being invited to view the whole evening as a con of its own with the paying audience as the fall guys. The plot isn’t real and the actors aren’t really plague-hit Londoners. A fair point about the artificiality of theatre, if that’s what was intended, but let’s face it, with theatre as good as this nobody was conned here. Far from it.

Visit www.rsc.org.uk for tickets and further details

Matthew Salisbury