The Alchemist

Tuesday 7 November 2006

Disciples of West End Whingers will by now be aware that whereas for most people a trip to the theatre is a treat, for WEW it is something of a chore.

So you can imagine that it was with heavy hearts that Phil and Andrew dutifully trod their way to the South Bank to see the National Theatre’s production of The Alchemist by Ben Jonson.

After all, this play is a “classic” and – being written in 1610 – pre-dates even Phil. So we were expecting to understand little and to like it rather less. To add to the sense of foreboding, the running time was advertised at not far short of three hours. And the icing on the confection was that Phil – in the words of Dame Edna Everage – has never “got the point” of Simon Russell Beale.

So it came as a surprise to everyone – not least ourselves – that we quite enjoyed it.

In case you don’t know (we didn’t), Jonson’s farce concerns three villains – Subtle, Face and Dol Common – who take the opportunity to occupy the house of Face’s master’s house when the latter leaves London to avoid the plague. Their attempts to con a series of patsies through frauds based on claims of alchemy and witchcraft develop into farce as their escapades get out of hand.

Director Nicholas Hytner seems to have had similar concerns to those of WEW regarding the accessibility of the language and dreams up plenty of ways to deliver distractions and diversions to prevent the audience from being overwhelmed by the language.

Some of these are successful. Alex Jennings’ assumed characters – including a fey American guru – are entertaining. So are some of the costumes and special mention has to go to whoever made the wigs (uncredited). Andrew and Phil also appreciated some of the anachronisms, notably the references to John Prescott and Joan Collins.
But some of it just doesn’t work. The live orchestra which plays a few bars every now and then is redundant. The set fails to contribute much to the production, dwarfed as it is by the cavernous Olivier Theatre.

But these are gripes. The production has great energy and the performances are excellent, although Ian Richardson is wasted rather – in our opinion he is at his best when he takes neutral material and infuses it with layers of nuance. In this production he seems to be in competition with the material.

But given our starting point, this was quite an achievement on the part of the National. And while we didn’t appreciate the principals gabbling through the dialogue at the time, goodness only knows what time the thing would have finished if they hadn’t.

3 Responses to “The Alchemist”

  1. mark Says:

    Trouble with wordpress is it doesn’t seem to say who posted each entry – or am I missing something?

  2. andreworange Says:

    The West End Whingers speak with one voice.

  3. westendwhinger Says:

    we normally agree to dislike everything..

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