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THE ALCHEMIST Swan, Stratford




Credulity and the con-artist, blinding-with-science and the selling of snake-oil, belong to all human eras. Ben Jonson’s play is set in 1610, when a householder flees the London plague and servants illicitly use the premises for their own ends. But as Polly Findlay’s deliciously daft, high-speed farce of foolishness develops, some of the pleasure lies in recognizing modern parallels.



The foolish Abel Drugger , a gloriously daft RSC debut from young Richard Leeming , begs the “alchemist” Subtle (Mark Lockyer in ratty flowing locks and assorted magic robes) for astrological advice on where to put the door and shelves in his new shop: pure feng-shui. Other customers drawn in by Subtle and the butler Face (Ken Nwosu) might as well be moderns being sold fake legal highs, dating services, horoscopes, and – in the case of the magnificently ambitious Sir Epicure Mammon – financial advice. Ian Redford in a vast beard and vaster leather breastplate gets a private round of applause for an oligarchically barmy riff on what he will do when the Philosopher’s Stone brings him vast wealth : feasts of dolphin-milk butter, carps’ tongues, camels’ heels dissolved in pearls and eaten with amber spoons, fish-skin gloves perfumed with Paradise, all that. He’d fit in beautifully with the modern superyacht set. Kastril, “an angry boy”, delivered with insane energy and lunatic moves by Tom McCall, just wants to learn to deliver a showy quarrel without personal risk: today he’d be on Top Gear. There is even, amid the cant about Ptolemy and Paracelsus, a reference to Temple Church, so Dan Brown believers can nod sagely at that…




Nobody is virtuous in a Jonson romp and everyone quarrels, including the male con-artists, forever being hauled back into line by their formidable female partner Dol Common, and two Anabaptist monks from Amsterdam (yes, it’s that sort of show, Monty Python can teach it nothing) . Surly, who comes with Sir Epicure to scoff and then disguises himself as a dazzlingly garish Spaniard to expose the con, wants his own cut of the proceeds (a rich widow who by then is being fought over by most of them). Even Hywel Morgan’s returning householder turns a blind eye in return for a slice.




The pace increases scene by scene and the physical comedy is stunning, even without the Act 2 explosion: to the point that poor Mark Lockyer had to be helped offstage for ten minutes on press night with a torn knee (he came back, unbowed, despite artistic director Greg Doran’s sporting offer from the stage to “tell you the rest of the story myself” ) . And the costumes help no end: a bustle you could set out a tea-party on, pantaloons the size of Smartcars and in one of the more chaotic interventions Joshua McCord being smothered in The Petticoat Of Fortune.




There’s a standout performance too from a second RSC debutante Siobhan McSweeney as Dol Common, culminating in her dangling irritably overhead in a delightfully unmanageable aerial sequence, a fairy godmother in bloomers, crinoline and a faux-posh accent. Normally it’s a stuffed crocodile up on that rope, a creature which I keep thinking I have seen dangling over the Swan stage before (was it in Arden of Faversham?? or The City Madam? help!). And Ken Nwosu – who in an elegant final moment of meta-theatre sees us off – gets to use Crocky’s jaws as a moneybox.

So a happy night. I hope Mr Lockyer’s knee gets some good physio, and he knows it was worth it. For us, anyway…
box office 0844 800 1110 to 6 Aug, then Barbican in autumn
rating four  4 Meece Rating


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