The Alchemist

The production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist at the Rose Theatre, Bankside “verges towards hysteria”

Rose Theatre, Bankside

This production of The Alchemist is performed just around the corner from The Globe, in the lesser known Rose Theatre. First built in 1587 and now a government-protected ancient monument, The Rose is in a rather dilapidated state but House on the Hill Productions make good use of the cramped balcony to perform this cony-catching comedy.

One of Jonson’s more popular comedies, The Alchemist presents three swindling characters whose money-making projects take off with great success when the master of the house flees the city because of plague. Finding himself alone in the house, the butler- known as Face- invites Subtle and Doll to use the house as a base for their underhand activities.

Subtle poses as an alchemist, and Doll as the Queen of Fairy. Together they promise to provide solutions to the whole neighbourhood’s problems; Dapper wants better luck at the gambling tables, Abel Drugger wants commercial success, Sir Epicure Mammom wants the philosopher’s stone. The ease with which each character is duped creates much of the play’s farce; there are plenty of outlandish costumes and ridiculous disguises, and the cast certainly crank-up the bawdy, boisterous aspects of their performance.

As for performance, one might say that the director, Jeremy Smith, has encouraged his cast to exploit the classical ideals of the play by having them present exaggerated ‘types’ or characters. And although Jonson probably did intend for a prostitute to be bawdy and his churchmen sanctimonious, it seems that the performances of this cast tend towards an unchecked hyperbole whose default vocal position seems to be that of shouting.

Having said that, Jerome Thompson is excellent as Face; being both smarmy and obsequious to those his cozens and unscrupulous in the double-deception of allies. In Thompson’s performance there is a sense of the individual behind the ‘type’ of character that Face represents and it seems that, if House on the Hill Productions aims to present fresh adaptations of classical pieces, it might want to play more with the classical unities in the same manner than Thompson does.

The whole cast is full of hearty spirit and there are some entertaining moments in this production, but on the whole it verges towards hysteria rather than comedy.

Charlotte Pegram