Alex Jennings, Simon Russell Beale, Lesley Manville and Ian Richardson star in The Alchemist, Ben Jonson’s classic farce about con artists, which opened at the National Theatre on Thursday 14 September, following previews from 5 September (See News, 15 Feb 2006). Nicholas Hytner’s production is the final play in this year’s Travelex £10 season in the NT Olivier and runs in rep until 21 November 2006.

First night critics found much to enjoy. Hytner’s production has been set in modern-day London but still retains the original text, which critics said could prove a stumbling block for those less familiar with Jonson’s work. However, the top-notch performances from the leading trio – Jennings, Russell Beale and Manville - and supporting cast members garnered high acclaim.

  • Michael Coveney on – “Old Ben speaks so directly to us, even now…. But the fabulous scam of the con artist, pimp and prostitute turning an absentee employer’s house into an emporium of fantastical rip-offs lacks the crucial, killing Jonsonian ingredient of unbridled glee…. The much-anticipated performances of Alex Jennings as the spurious alchemist Subtle and Simon Russell Beale as the chameleon housekeeper Face are brilliant, but strenuous, exercises in “character”. I may just be admitting the perennial problem of not enjoying Jonson as much as I always want to. Only Ian Richardson’s superbly phrased and orotund Sir Epicure Mammon - what a joy to see this remarkable actor, the greatest voice in the RSC archive, in his sleek dotage! – compels complete relaxation in the satirical and exotic idioms of the play.”

  • Paul Taylor in Independent - Taylor enjoyed Hytner’s “fresh, inventively funny production.” He said: “Playing together for the first time in their distinguished careers, Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale are a joy as Subtle and Face, the mutually resentful duo who, with sidekick-whore Dol Common (excellent Lesley Manville), turn the house that Face is looking after in his master's absence into a crazy dream factory. Tailoring his act to each victim, Jennings dazzlingly shuffles identities…. Likewise, Russell Beale's Face shape-shifts hilariously…. I never properly understood the geography of the set, and the updating does few favours to the relationship between the scam and the returning master. But I disagree with the idea that the multiplicity of accents in the production demonstrates a lack of faith in the dense, difficult text. To my ear, the different accents heightened, through defamiliarisation, a sense of its comic richness.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times - “There is something about a conman, at least when he’s exploiting and exposing greed and folly, that is perversely attractive — or so Ben Jonson, that mix of moralist and monster, suggested in The Alchemist. And when Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings scramble from disguise to disguise and expedient to expedient as they maniacally cope with a deluge of undeserving victims — well, one is inclined to agree…. Russell Beale and Jennings (have) the chance to prove not only that they are slick collaborators in crime but that there is no funnier or more adroit double-act on the London stage…. Could our devilish duo and their helpmate, Lesley Manville’s cheerfully slatternly Dol Common, bring a bit more hardness and danger to their manipulations? After all, there is a point after which even morally instructive criminals aren’t so funny. For a moment you think so. But then Ian Richardson’s Mammon goes into voracious reverie: ‘I will have all my beds blown up, not stuffed: down is too hard.’ Or Jennings’ Subtle promises a magic medicine that will cure ‘a great man of state’ of the gout, flashing a photo of John Prescott as he does so. And, whatever its ethics, the evening is irresistible.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - Spencer was impressed with the “fresh and superbly inventive production by Nicholas Hytner, blessed with the cast of one's dreams” which he said made “most of the difficulties (with the archaic text) disappear…. It would be dishonest to pretend that you can make sense of every line and catch every allusion. But Jonson's story of a trio of confidence tricksters, and the ingenious manner in which they gull their ‘marks’, is played with an energy, wit and resourcefulness that carries all before it…. Jonson's savage humour is often laugh-out-loud funny, and seems peculiarly attuned to the cynical, disillusioned sensibility of our own age…. Face, Subtle and Dol Common might just as well be conning their mug punters with dodgy timeshares in Tenerife, the latest foolproof pyramid-selling scheme, or dud tips about tomorrow's dead cert in the 3.30 at Kempton Park. The details of the scam change with time. The mechanics of the con, and the gullibility of human nature, remain just the same. What Jonson realised is that confidence trickery makes for superb theatre, as the activities are so closely related as to be almost indistinguishable…. Rarely have I seen an apparently dusty classic given such an exhilarating modern makeover.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard - “Nicholas Hytner's ingeniously modernised and stylised, contemporary-dress production… celebrates the suave confidence trickster…. This dramatist's (Jonson’s) erudite language and frame of reference often make The Alchemist sound intimidatingly distant and obscure in a way Shakespeare does not…. Jennings' estuary-accented wide boy Subtle sets the deceptions going in a comedy classic performance. Hilariously got up as an American hippie, with headscarf, beads and a voice of glazed, camp affectation, or white-gowned and tranquil, he oozes a grave, misleading sincerity. Russell Beale delights and deftly bridges class divides thanks to speedy costume changes: his bearded, bewigged and blazered naval captain turns servile and German in overalls and ends up gaily domestic, while Manville's Dol Common, in her pearls, high heels and genteel voice, efficiently seduces. A timeless farce reclaimed.”

  • Susannah Clapp in the Observer - “Nicholas Hytner has gone for gold. And got it…. You know that Hytner's gamble of setting the play in modern dress is going to pay off as soon as the lights go up on the three scammers sitting frowstily and frostily over their cornflakes…. Alex Jennings, lolling in his dressing-gown, packs dandified scorn and low-life shrewdness into one lift of an eyebrow…. Jonson's play is dazzlingly and densely written…. By his updatings, Hytner makes it as clear as it could be, showing with what startling neatness one century's obsessions and dodges map on to another…. Forget Marks & Spencer, Ant and Dec, Posh and Becks: it's Russell Beale and Jennings - working together for the first time - who are the essential new combo.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell