2016 is not only the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, but also a commemoration of other significant personalities in London’s theatre scene. In 1616, Ben Jonson practically became England’s first ever poet laureate, when King James I gave him a £60 annual pension. And to celebrate, Mercurius Theatre are currently in the middle of a run of his seminal farce The Alchemist.
Face, a butler, is taking advantage of his master’s absence (due to the plague) by teaming up with Subtle & Doll Common to fleece Londoners for all they can get. Their deceptions get ever more intertwined & complicated, with hilarious results.
This production is set a couple of centuries out of its time, but stories of the gullible being conned are always relevant – and Sarah Andrews has designed some stunning costumes for the occasion. Interestingly, the production uses loud, anachronistic music for many of the transitions between scenes. Somehow this really works! It gives the cast a chance to quickly reset the stage, the more electro style music providing a sense of urgency that keeps the show’s pace up.
What makes the Rose Playhouse stand out from other theatrical venues is its status as an archaeological site. The main stage is a floor surrounded on three sides by seating, but the rest of the site is also accessible to the actors. It gives directors a terrific opportunity to work with some extra space & provide further scale to their productions. Jenny Eastop’s direction is innovative & makes use of the space in an entertaining, yet practical fashion.
The cast are hard-working, half of them doubling up & playing two parts, and Subtle & Face themselves portraying multiple personalities depending on the client.
Beth Eyre is a brilliant accomplice as Doll Common, especially when she is called upon to act as the ‘Fairy Queen’ to trick Dapper (Monty D’Inverno) – finger bells and all. Entrance of the show has to go to Alec Bennie, who arrives onstage in flamboyant style, accompanied by over the top flamenco guitar music, when Pertinax Surly comes in disguise as a Spanish nobleman.
Peter Wicks & Benjamin Garrison make an hysterical double act as Face & Subtle. Their use of physical comedy & natural asides is outstanding, and they take full advantage of their characters assuming different guises to provide great entertainment value. Wicks as German henchman (replete with goggles & tongs) and Garrison as a Scottish clergyman are particular highlights.
My verdict? A top-notch production of one of the finest comedies in the English language – a must-see from a talented company.
The Alchemist runs at the Rose Playhouse until 30 June 2016. Tickets are available online and at the box office (020 7261 9565).