London is full of cheats, swindlers, tax dodgers and bank fixers. Times haven’t changed in that respect, which should have made this new production of The Alchemist – Ben Jonson’s story of three con artists ripping off Londoners in a vacated town house – extremely timely.
The problem is, unless you’ve read the synopsis beforehand (not, unhelpfully, included in the programme) you might find yourself having literally lost the plot. Jonson’s prose is knotty and dense and so an extra energy is needed to hold the thing together and convey its sense.
The cast is young, including many graduates of the King’s Players (Kings College London’s drama society), aptly it turns out as the Alchemist’s first performance was by the King’s Men in 1610. Be prepared for a raw production therefore, showing some fine emerging performers alongside an often cumbersome pace and an awkward modern theme.
Lead crook Subtle (Sahil Batra) shines amongst some of the play’s duller aspects, like the gold he claims to be able to make out of ordinary objects. It’s through his performance that we appreciate Jonson’s weighty but image-laden prose (Face is like a “spider” behind “brooms, and dust, and watering-pots” – lovely) He also brings to mind a hilariously weedy early Blackadder with his whiny, ridiculous magician incantations and attempts at being a mighty villain. Face, (Dominic Chambers), the no-good butler using his master’s mansion for the trio’s misdeeds, was also brilliant as a geezer-on-the-make.
However, the overarching theme of the London riots seems to make an actual riot of the characterisation elsewhere. Louise Laker’s Dol descended into a stereotype chav character with gold hoops and an attitude, where what was needed was more of a touchstone with reality and authenticity.
Fair game though to this young production team of taking on The Alchemist. At times it was gold, but it needed stronger alchemy to transform that very rich language into magic on stage.
The Alchemist plays Upstairs at the Gatehouse, 1 North Road, Highgate, London, N6 4BD until 22 July. Tickets £10-£14