Ben Johnson's satirical feat The Alchemist was first performed by the King's Men no less than 400 years ago. It has been revived at the White Bear Theatre with vigour and enthusiasm, proving remarkably relevant and fresh. Greed, lust and avarice are universal transgressions, and a good hoax will make for excellent theatrical tension in any era. Fledgling theatre company Let Them Call It Mischief have chosen the material for their first venture wisely and well, and meet their stated brief entirely, managing to “delight and to entertain, and bring a little bit of London's theatrical history to life” with this revival.
A wooden medicine cabinet of comic versatility is the only feature on stage and the home of every prop in this production. Seats emerge from the lower compartments, hatches drop down to accommodate peeking characters, and scrolls and stick on moustaches are hidden behind tiny doors to be used throughout the play. One portable door sees an abundance of colourful characters mill in and out of this pop-up shop in search of potions for their improvement and the conjuring of their most sought after delights.
The cast of curiously adorned, excitable characters tread, trample and trot across the floorboards with relentless energy for nigh on two and half hours. Almost all are in search of magic spells and elixirs that might satiate their various vices and they take their petitions to duplicitous gangster Face (Danny Wainwright) and odd sorcerer Subtle (Ed Cartwright) who have capitalised on Face's landlord Lovewit fleeing London for fear of the plague, and turned his home into a veritable den of iniquity.
Johnson's fine satire leaves no stone unturned in the exposure of the follies of the naïve Londoners who require a supernatural push in the right direction. Simple tobacconist Drugger (Phil Featherstone) is an example of their pliable visitors. An enthusiastic lad with business ambitions, it is clear that he will run with any given idea once it appears even mildly advantageous. This makes him good bait for more new custom in the form of hapless duo Dame Pliant, (Alyssa Noble) recently widowed, and her brother Kastril (Tom Ashley) who are decked in matching lemon and white starched finery, and seeking love and courage respectively.
Arguably, the most enthusiastic and comic of all petitioners is Sir Epicure Mammon, played by Andrew Venning. His strongest desires are for eternal youth and virility and a coven of mistresses to exercise his potential strengths on. He develops a fixation on Dol, (Stephanie Hampton), a prostitute who is ambiguously close to both Face and Subtle and plays a vital role in their pursuits. For Mammon, who first spies her by mistake, she must pretend to be suffering from madness due to her impossible genius and switches from a bloomers and jacket combo to an elegant purple velvet gown to exact the torture of the chase on her unsuspecting pursuer with excruciating disinterest.
The music and sound throughout are excellently timed, providing comic boosts. Subtle's transition to 'the Queen of Fairy', when exacting a trick on Dapper (Richard Taylor-Neil) is accompanied by a resounding ping which, exaggerates the ridiculous scenario of a wealthy gentleman in pursuit of purchasable luck. Some innovative staging concepts stand out, including the rather brilliant evocation of a crowd of noisy neighbours delivered by hands with hats on and a variety of swiftly shifting accents.
Director Danny Wainwright played the demanding lead role of Face as a last-minute replacement on the night I attended. His performance was a brave and bold one, and had we not been made aware of the casting change the audience would scarcely have spotted that anything was amiss. Mammon's sceptical comrade Surly (James Mc Gregor) initially enters as a brooding intellectual and later returns undercover as a flamboyant caped Spanish Don with astounding adaptability and ease.
The Alchemist is a mischievous romp packed with ridicule and revelry. There is nothing subtle about the comedy in this production, particularly in the second half, when the pace gathers and scene after scene depicts the unravelling of the flimsy promises made by Face and Subtle. Slapstick audience interaction and a cast who are confident enough to improvise when props let them down made for a warm and intimate evening which may not be to everyone's tastes but proved flavour of the evening on Thursday last.