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Sunday, 30 September 2012

Theatre - The Alchemist - Liverpool Playhouse

Star rating - 9/10

Ben Jonson's brilliant comic play The Alchemist feels as fresh today in its interpretation at the Liverpool Playhouse, as I am sure it did when it was written in 1610. As well as being riotous, hilarious fun, it has a serious message about the shallowness of materialism and the worship of Mammon.

Jeremy is a butler who takes full advantage of his master's absence by teaming up with a conman and using the house to dupe a series of unwitting fools into parting with their money for a variety of ridiculous and greedy vain quests. The success of the play hinges on this comic partnership at its heart, and Nicolas Tennant as Jeremy (reinvented as Face for the cons), and Ian Bartholomew as Subtle are simply fabulous. Bartholomew is especially impressive as his part involves five or six different characters with different voices and appearances. 

Director Robert Icke and designer Colin Richmond have certainly used the sparse set to great effect, with the backstage area visible to the audience, further exposing all the costume changes and duplicity involved in the plot. There is maximum audience involvement along the way, which I have to say was an absolute joy. 

The adaptation has really made the language and message of this gem of a comedy accessible without dumbing it down in the slightest. The whole cast were great, with some of the most complex lines consistently delivered with aplomb. And there were some very well chosen, and much appreciated by me, humorously appropriate tunes played in the interval - Gold by Spandau Ballet; Can't Buy Me Love by The Beatles; and Material Girl by Madonna to name but a few.

It really was extremely funny to witness the succession of gullible fools ring on the doorbell, necessitating slick, and sometimes not so slick, character and costume changes by the con artists, as they convinced their victims to part with their money in return for the promise of gold and other unattainable riches. Another great example of the importance of impeccable comic timing, and the power of very good comedy to retain its humour and message through the centuries. I wonder how many of today's offerings will be able to do the same...

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