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The Alchemist

Ben Jonson
Theatre of Bray
Rosemary Branch Theatre
(2010)

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Ben Jonson's plays are not the easiest for a modern company to revive but done well they can work wonderfully and his scenes of London life, of gullibility and greed have a powerful resonance with a modern audience.

The Theatre of Bray bring lots of energy and volume to their production but they don't manage to make it work, although some members of the press night audience did find their physicality and mugging hilariously funny.

They start of at a spanking pace with a comic skirmish. Deciding, I presume, that swordplay is out of place in a modern dress production, they flourish an egg-beater as a weapon and scuffle with cutlery - which might make sense if these were snatched up in the heat of argument but not when they have to be fetched out of a cupboard.

As Lovewit says later in this tale of con-men, gullibility and greed 'the world's turned Bedlam' but it does have to be comprehensible to the audience and, assuming it had not been cut, I totally missed the way in which Jonson sets up where we are and the relationship between the characters, punk and cheater as Jonson calls them: a servant who, while his master is off in the country for fear of plague, sets up a charlatan alchemist in the house and brings in stream of punters ranging from city gent to small shopkeeper, Anabaptist to gambler.

Perhaps playing Subtle, the 'alchemist,' as American is intended to make some political point and the actor has fun making one of his impersonations a revivalist preacher from the Bible Belt but this is London so why should his estuary-accented accomplice Face suddenly adopt a Deep South delivery for one gulling session?

There is too much face pulling and too little real thinking in these performances. Of course, we should be aware that the key characters are pretending in their con-tricks but even in the more relaxed performances in this production there was a lot of self-conscious acting.

It was not until the plot was fully wound up and we neared the end that this production allowed itself some time to think and show a clarity that had earlier been largely missing. Many of the cast are relatively new to the profession and probably lack experience in Jacobean drama; they need more help than they get here. The director has solved some of the problems of handling Jonson's text by some heavy cutting but she seems to have been more interested in amusing the audience with 'coarse' acting than in helping her cast actually understand what they are saying - the first requirement if an audience is going to comprehend and enjoy.

Until 11th March 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton