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Brighton Fringe 2012

The Alchemist

The Barefoot Players

Genre: Comedy, Drama


 The Marlborough Theatre


Low Down

With a trio of con artists and a lot of people just asking to be conned, Ben Jonson’s tale of greed and gullibility wakes up in 1920s Brighton


 It’s quite an update, but 1920s Brighton is a fitting backdrop for Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. A far cry from the plague-ridden London of the 1600s, this cast of bright young things – otherwise known as The Barefoot Players – bring energy and exuberance to this revival.

Re-imagined but still faithful to the original, Eleanor Conlon and James Davies direct a play which thrives off a modernised setting. The spirit one associates with the 1920s is lived out in this one room. The costumes dazzle, and there’s a strong hedonistic element which compliments the play’s proceedings.

The plot involves two confidence tricksters, Face and Subtle, who take their chance to cozen a host of gullible customers – but the two tricksters are operating on borrowed time. Face, formerly Jeremy, Lovewit’s butler, can only run his scam while Lovewit is away. In the meantime, he assumes a number of disguises to haul in prospective victims and place them in Subtle’s hands. Subtle, a pretended alchemist and psychic to the stars, offers said victims many false promises including wealth, intimate contact with the ‘Queen of Fairy’, and the philosopher’s stone. All seems to run rather swimmingly until Surly (a customer’s companion and noted sceptic) arrives and suspects Subtle of foul play.

Right from the word go it’s all very giddy. Chaos ensues (in the best way possible) around the dressing up box as the two conmen embark on their scheme to swindle all and sundry. Sam Black as Face and Andy Mansell as Subtle are a commendable duo. At first it seems the two actors are in overdrive, physically shaky, and at some points tripping over their words, but this is soon ironed out as they settle into their respective roles. They work well together, and no doubt the character changes required of both actors will become more fluid as the run progresses.

Greg Field is a superlative Sir Epicure Mammon. He paints the character with great vanity and bumptiousness, and plays it with such an ease that when he’s onstage he’s always centre stage. There is a slight issue at times with voice projection and audibility from some members of the cast, particularly early on where nerves play more of a part, but Field is never unclear. His is a booming Mammon, and it succeeds.

James Davies makes a brilliant caricature out of Kastril. Quite the buffoon, he really plays to the audience and is a good source of comedy all round. Decked out in white flannel trousers, a striped blazer and a striped boater hat, he marches about barking orders like a regimental sergeant major with an exaggerated cut-glass accent, but still manages to charm and delight at the same time.

With a cast that generally pleases in the acting stakes, only Iona Twiston-Davies as Dol Common, Face and Subtle’s associate, stands out as a weak link. In fact the quality of performance goes up ten points whenever she is not on stage. She plays her part with arrogance and over-the-top flaunting. There’s no comedy to her at all. No actual bawdiness. Even her striptease is devoid of humour, and, ultimately, adds nothing to this production.

This aside, there’s mischief and mayhem in equal measure. It’s well realised, it makes you laugh, and most importantly, there’s a real sense the actors are having fun out there.