The Alchemist

RSC Barbican Theatre, London (****)

© Helen Maybanks, Mark Lockyer as 1the alchemist', Subtle

© Helen Maybanks, Mark Lockyer as the `alchemist’, Subtle

It’s one of the abiding marks of our age, the con. Whether it’s flashy as in The Hustle, aspirational as in the Lottery, or sophisticated as in The Sting, the con runs through our lives. At any one moment, we’re only a hair’s breadth away from being taken for a ride. These days, it’s more likely to be an online or phone scam offering thousands of pounds at the press of a button or a computer to be saved from a terminal virus or even secondary glazing!

Everyone is on the make which is why Ben Jonson’s 1610 satire written at the height of London’s Plague still resonates so strongly with 21st century theatregoers.

We know we are as liable to be gulled as those Jonson sets up so brilliantly in the house left by Lovewit, the master fleeing disease and pestilence in Blackfriars, in the safe hands, he thinks, of his servant, Jeremy.

But Jeremy has an alter ego, Face. Joined by the markedly misanthropic `alchemist’ Subtle (in Mark Lockyer’s portrait) and Siobhan McSweeney’s Irish Dol, they lose no time in exploiting their fellow man and woman with promises of predictions, sex and the ultimate philosopher’s stone – gold.

© Helen Maybanks, Ian Redford as Sir Epicure Mammon, Siobhan McSweeney as Dol

© Helen Maybanks, Ian Redford as Sir Epicure Mammon, Siobhan McSweeney as Dol

Whether it’s Abel Drugger, the young tobacconist anxious to find the right dimensions for his new shop (a touch of pre-feng shui there), the glorious Ian Redford as the sybaritic Sir Epicure Mammon luxuriating in past and future gastronomic delights (and turning at one point on the ground like a great roly-poly), or a lawyer’s clerk hoping to make a bit on the side through marrying off a beautiful widow, none are a match for Subte’s dark scheming or the quick witted opportunism of Ken Nwosu’s lively Jeremy/Face.

© Helen Maybanks, Ken Nwosu as Face with hapless Dame Pliant (Rosa Robson)

© Helen Maybanks, Ken Nwosu as Face with hapless Dame Pliant (Rosa Robson)

Polly Findlay’s Swan transfer takes a while to get up speed, despite Stephen Jeffery’s judicious pruning. But once the victims begin to come crashing into each other, Jonson’s farce and Findlay’s touch prove irresistible.

Findlay too adds a nicely jaundiced Jonsonian finale as Nwosu changes into everyday clothes and sets about selling RSC tickets at knock down prices. Point taken. We’re all ripe for the taking.

The Alchemist runs at the Barbican to Oct 1, 2016 (see also RSC Barbican)Review first published for Reviewsgate and slightly amended here.

© Helen Maybanks, Tom McCall as `angry' boy, Kastril, Ken Nwosu (Face) and Mark Lockyer (Subtle)

© Helen Maybanks, Tom McCall as `angry’ boy, Kastril, Ken Nwosu (Face) and Mark Lockyer (Subtle)