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The Alchemist (Liverpool)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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O rare Ben Jonson indeed, but this initially seemed overdone. The frenetic opening means it’s tricky to work out what’s going on in this seedy lodging, so obviously a stage set, with dialogue delivered at breakneck speed.

In Face’s master’s absence (yes, that kind of mouthful), he forms a low life A Team to fleece a succession of greedy fools; he brings them in and the eponymous Subtle brings them down, in a variety of guises, all with the help of Dol. Did I mention the word pantomime…

For me, the fun eventually begins with lumpen Drugger (Kristian Phillips), whom the village idiot would look down on. Next up, Simon Coates, excellent as the ridiculous verbose Sir Epicure Mummer, likewise his cynical companion, Surly (the distinctive voice of Kevin Harvey), who as a wealthy Arab then attempts to expose the rogues

And best to describe the excellent pairing and constant, complicated conflict of Subtle (Ian Bartholomew) and Face (Nicolas Tennant) as chemistry; literally explosive at one point. Lovely, lively multi-tasking Dol (Lara Rossi) is an oddly steadying influence, a lot better than she ought to be, while Ellie Kirk provides a simply wonderful contrast; the WAG like Dame Pliant is as dopey as her brother Kastil is vicious, though Hasan Dixon also provides a desperately funny turn à la Ali G.

Biting satire strikes nouveau riche, jaded aristos, clerics and country bumpkins; it all ends in tears with the master’s return (a magisterial Roger Watkins) - but not quite, with a final twist.

Ultimately, Jonson’s brilliant conceit and Robert Icke’s cunning direction do the trick - at the start of a tumultuous Autumn, the Playhouse Season has come roaring in like a lion.

- Carole Baldock


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