The thrills of trickery and cunning illusion come together in this high energy production of Ben Johnson’s The Alchemist. When his master leaves town to escape the plague, Face, a butler, joins forces with Subtle and Doll to pull off a series of con jobs. Proffering everything from the philosopher’s stone to quarrelling advice, the charlatans adopt a dazzling array of disguises to deceive their hapless victims, scamming from them every last penny.
Concealment pervades every element of The Alchemist. Gender-blind casting, highlighting gender as a performance, speaks loud and clear of the fact that in this universe, no-one is whom they seem at first glance. Even the sound design reflects this, beautifully distinguishing each of the realities the trio concoct to seduce their clientele.
At breakneck speed, actors weave through the marvellously cluttered set, diving behind curtains and costume swapping before us. The haphazard set is complemented by the dungeon-esque venue of The Caves, and is littered with what appears to be the contents of a failing charity shop – ideal for the headquarters of the play’s subversive operation.
“You know that I am an indulgent master, and therefore conceal nothing”. The Alchemist remains faithful to the seventeenth century script, and so the language does require concentration – the first scene is very confusing. However, a combination of contemporary gestures and some cheeky asides – “1588, the Spanish Armada” – provide sufficient context for the plot to be enjoyed by those without any familiarity with the play. Johnson’s witty caricatures have been rendered timeless by a universally talented company, with comedy both preserved and inadvertently emerging from contact with a modern audience.
As the cast began to dismantle the set at the conclusion of the play before the house lights came up, it was apparent that it was us, the audience, who had been conned for the last hour, swallowing the illusion of this superbly whimsical production hook, line and sinker.