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Theatre of Bray presents


The Alchemist


by Ben Jonson


Directed by Scarlett Plouviez Comnas


Rosemary Branch Theatre


March 23 – April 22, 2010






A review by James Richards for EXTRA! EXTRA!

The hustlers at the centre of Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist feel remarkably modern considering they’re four hundred years old. Based in a handsome house in Jacobean London, Subtle (Kevin Millington) Face (Christopher Tester) and Dol (Emma Vane) form a trio of ‘cozening’ shysters milking the gullible and preying on the vanity of the rich.

Act one sets off at a furious pace, with Millington and Tester at each others’ throats, duelling, very amusingly, with a whisk and a wooden spoon. Vane serves as the arbitrator, pulling them apart just in time before the first ‘client’ of the day arrives. The physical work (Ruth Cooper-Brown) is convincing and energetic without descending into farce.

Messrs. Millington, Tester and Vane present a startling array of personas, balancing as they do, several schemes at once within the house at the same time. This requires an Olympiad of impersonation: Tester masquerades as a Captain, a butler, a laboratory assistant; Millington as a clairvoyant Doctor, English aristocrat and fiery Baptist minister. Good play is made of the costumes – at one point a missing glove threatens to unravel a finely-wrought conceit, and surprisingly we never feel baffled, despite the cast’s doubling-up and quick-fire exchanges.

Director Scarlett Plouviez Comnas’ previous experience with Jonson (The Silent Woman) is evident in that her cast’s vocal delivery is crisp throughout, and feels naturalistic, especially in Tester’s case. Jonson’s style is altogether less knotty and reflective than his contemporary Shakespeare’s and allow for Millington’s physical abilities to combine well with Tester. Vane’s contribution was excellent when we saw her. Unfortunately, for much of the piece, she is ‘entertaining’ upstairs, off stage.

Perhaps the décor of the set was at odds with the costumes. Yellow and gold floral wallpaper and a pewter tankard point to a period piece, as do the leads’ ambiguous black and white basics. Daniel Moore’s besuited Mammon, a greedy denizen of the upper class, hinted at satire but Alex William’s angry young man, wearing a rugger shirt, pin-stripes and a wax jacket is the first clear indication that we’re dealing with modern equivalents. This happens far too late to be effective, and alongside the Spanish matador’s get-up seems a little ill-conceived. 

Side-step these quibbles and you find a rewarding piece. It’s strangely re-assuring that we haven’t moved on much from Jonson’s time. Conmen only survive because people are greedy and like the idea of getting something – fortune, fame, love – quickly and painlessly, and are willing to take part in a fantasy. Mammon, played with relish by Moore, is a piñata filled with gold, easily deceived by Dol’s captivating looks. But he rains insight too; his is the excess to which we are all at some point party. Just remember: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Rosemary Branch Theatre
2 Shepperton Road
N1 3DT

Box Office: 020 7704 6665


Tickets £10 – £12




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