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Review: The Alchemist, Rosemary Branch Theatre

PUBLISHED: 11:00 04 April 2010 | UPDATED: 15:49 05 October 2010

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Adam Levy

Forget superstar novelist Paulo Coelho s worldwide hit - playwright Ben Johnson got there first. Jonson s foremost farce, The Alchemist , was first performed in 1610. It is a scathingly satirical portrait of the vanity of London society, high and low. W

Forget superstar novelist Paulo Coelho's worldwide hit - playwright Ben Johnson got there first. Jonson's foremost farce, 'The Alchemist', was first performed in 1610. It is a scathingly satirical portrait of the vanity of London society, high and low.

While the master of the house is away, his butler sets up shop as London's top hustler, Face. He enlists the help of fellow conman Subtle and prostitute Dol Common to swindle the pants off the city's greedy and gullible.

A long line of familiar faces parade through the house in search of gold and glory. A gambler is desperate for tip offs from the gods, a nobleman wants eternal wealth and fame, and a shopkeeper looks for the key to successful sales.

So the trio of tricksters set about making their dreams come true - making a little money for themselves along the way.

Will they tie themselves in knots? Will their dastardly deeds come crashing down around them?

The play may be 400 years old but the story is still familiar today. Theatre of Bray brings it up to date for their show at the Rosemary Branch Theatre in Islington, placing the characters somewhere between the filthy gutters of Jacobean London and the flash con culture of the Noughties.

Johnson doesn't discriminate. He pokes fun at every Tom, Dick or Harrry no matter their class. And this production successfully translates the 17th century figures for today's audience. We see a city businessman, a tight-lipped member of a Scottish brethren and a horse-faced young country gentleman, who wears four shirt collars resplendently pulled up under his dark green barber.

Theatre of Bray abandons the dark and the dingy in favour of a bright and sparky production, condensing the convoluted plotline into a snappy three hours. The first half is so fast-paced it feels a little as if we are racing through to the end. But the second settles down enough that we can begin to unravel Johnson's web of words.

Performances are confident and energetic, and the cast's enthusiasm for the slapstick and silliness rubs off on their audience. Emma Vane clowns around as waiflike loony Dol whilst Chistropher Tester and Kevin Millington make a fine pair as Face and Subtle. They lark around the stage reeling off well-rehearsed lines in good timing.

Johnson's script is not easy listening at first, and much of its meaning is lost in the whirlwind. But combined with boisterous performances, polished production and clever characterisation, 'The Alchemist' left me in a state of happy exhaustion.

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