THEATRE REVIEW: The Alchemist, Liverpool Playhouse

SOMEBODY get Ben Jonson a time machine. The man deserves to see how poignant The Alchemist continues to be 500 years after he wrote it; how, in the Liverpool Playhouse’s production at least, his script trips from actors’ mouths as if it had been composed yesterday; how Subtle’s and Dol Common’s unhappy end could have been written as a warning to the bankers and politicians of today.

What a delight to discover that though your bones have long since crumbled to dust, your words remain relevant. Or is it?

Would Jonson be disappointed that, so many generations on, although humanity has managed to invent the flushing toilet and the budget airline, we have not yet learned to overcome greed?

Or would he have foreseen, to paraphrase director Robert Icke, that man will forever jump through hoops in a vain and selfish attempt to achieve our greatest desires?

Whatever the answer, this is an undeniably modern production and Jonson’s script is revitalised but not overshadowed by 21st century touches such as an apparently remote-controlled soundtrack featuring everything from There’s No Business Like Showbusiness to Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get it On and the random appearance of a can of baked beans.

Playing on The Alchemist’s theme of trickery, nothing about this production is quite what it appears.

Icke conjures the element of surprise so that you’re never quite sure what the actors will do next – hurl pieces of bread into the audience or whack each other over the head with a soon-broken guitar.

It is not just the artifice of the con artist or rogue capitalist that is being called into question. The production plays on the idea of theatre trickery too – using various devices to suddenly remind the audience that what they are seeing is pretend.

The set, largely composed of a row of shabby doors, appears to have been constructed from the spoils of a reclamation yard and only just hangs together – every slam or dramatic gesture threatens to collapse it.

The outside world is suggested by a cloth painted with clouds hanging in one corner. The front door is positioned above the main stage so you can watch the arrival of each mark.

Among them are Simon Coates (Tartuffe, The Hypochondriac) as the lisping, over-grown public schoolboy Sir Epicure Mammon, every bit the

Private Eye caricature of a Tory MP, and fake sheikh Surly (Liverpool-born Kevin Harvey – Tiny Volcanoes, Anthology), who has stepped straight out of a tabloid-style sting.

But it’s the three mercurial tricksters who keep the play zipping along – Lara Rossi as an engaging Dol; Ian Bartholomew (The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui) as Subtle, slipping from Indian sage to hippy-dippy doctor in his attempts to trick his visitors; and Nicholas Tennant as the slippery Face, who ultimately gets away with his immoral behaviour like a banker resigning with a golden handshake.

Liverpool Post, September 20, 2012