Volpone is a theatrical fable, populated by ciphers, a morality play: greed corrupts. It's a timeless theme that's clearly resonant right now, something the Humble players are hoping to play on.
Ben Jonson's play deals in types and an elaborate conman's plot. It's a game of words that unravels, as desperate creatures spiral deeper into foul deception in the pursuit of an inheritance that is never theirs to have, while innocence and poverty are blithely trampled.
Here, however, Volpone - the acquisitive manipulator who feigns terminal illness for 3 years to trick the avaricious predators of Venice around him into increasing his wealth as they fawn to be his heir - comes off more like a mischievous rogue, rather than a merciless villain. He's gleeful not contemptuous while his servant Mosca's sly panderings and lightning quick responses to every turn of the ever more complex duplicity deftly show him to be the far more cunning mind. The parasite avoids suspicion, because of his low status and the supposed fox because of his elevated position. The predators' single minded desires render them blind to the dance played out around them. It's an excellent set up and a hugely enjoyable farce but the symbiotic relationship at the heart of the play is oddly imbalanced in this production. It's not right that you should be rooting for Mosca.
The stand out scenes are between grasping Corvino and his young, pious wife - a visibly trembling Celia in the most fantastic green shoes - whom he moves from jealously guarding, to sadistically bullying and then freely pimping, offering her up for sex with the "dying" Volpone when that's offered as a sure way to guarantee his future wealth. Advocate Voltore's legal disquisitions, adeptly exonerating the corrupt and condemning the innocents with total lack of evidence are delivered with professional aplomb. Of course, everything comes right in the end, but it's less due to Celia's prayers than the overreaching of the servant, something more unforgivable in the "nobleman's" eye than plain deceit.
The irony that this allegory of avarice should be stage in the Humble Theatre was not lost on last night's show but it's a shame that despite best efforts at creating a cosy theatrical space in this pub basement, it should be right by the kitchen; the sound of sizzling chip fat providing an alternative soundtrack to the "jet black farce".
Jonson's verse remains fresh, bitingly satirical and ingenious but this show needs a little more confidence to live up to its outrageous caricatures.
Volpone is at the Humble Theatre, downstairs at the Prince Edward pub, 73 Princes Square, W2 until 23rd April. Check the website for show dates & times. Book on 0870 80 30 156, £10/7.