The Alchemist

Paulo Coelho, adaptation by the company
Cornish Theatre Collective
Queen's Hall, Hexham, and touring
(2005)

Production photograph of The Alchemist

Coelho's book, The Alchemist, can truly be called an international bestseller. It has been translated into a huge range of languages from Afrikaans to Urdu, including, of course, English, for he was born in Brazil. Part of the secret of its success is that, although it has the simplicity of a children's story, it speaks directly to adults, for it deals with that most difficult of tasks - realising one's own destiny or learning to be yourself.

I have to admit that it isn't to my taste - perhaps my view of life, the universe and everything is just too cynical - but the Cornish Theatre Collective's production definitely is. In keeping with the style of the novel, they have opted to keep it as simple as possible - simple storytelling, simple set, simple props and costumes - but that simplicity conceals a considerable amount of art. The five-strong cast play a huge range of parts (including sheep, camels, horses and the wind!) and signal changes by (usually) small changes of costume. Much use is made of mime and physical techniques but their voices are flexible, too.

Paddy Haughton's set is simple but very versatile - a row of pieces of yellow fabric hanging at the back becomes, among other things, the sails of a ship and a Bedouin tent - and some clever use is made of two puppet hawks.

This surface simplicity of the staging is an apt reflection of the surface simplicity of the novel and relies in no small measure on the talents of the cast - Maria Fernanda Guirao (as Santiago), Lauren Hassan-Leslie, T J Holmes, David Kershaw and Mario Vernazza - under the accomplished direction of Dominic Knutton. They're a multi-talented group, too, providing much of the music live, as well as before both acts and afterwards.

If you're a fan of the novel, you'll love it: if you're not, there is still much to enjoy in this cleverly staged production.

One final word - not about the production but to the venue: you had a house of at least (I imagine) 75% and yet only one bar was open, serving tea, coffee, soft and alcoholic drinks, with just one person serving. I waited for fifteen minutes in the queue, whilst four people were served, before giving up just five minutes before the show went up. There were a lot of quite angry people!

The production tours until mid-April: tour dates and venues.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan