Writer: Ben Jonson
Director: Jon Barton
Reviewer: James Waddell
The London in which Ben Jonson’s classic Jacobean comedy takes place hasn’t changed much – a broiling cauldron of colourful characters, always on the brink of explosion, co-existing in uneasy balance like the alchemical elements brewed up by the titular character. Jon Barton’s thoroughly entertaining retelling takes advantage of London’s largely unchanged atmosphere, relocating the action from a London beset by plague to a London beset by the riots, complete with thumping Dizzee Rascal soundtrack and baseball-wielding hooligans.
The Elizabethan mansion taken over by a trio of con-artists in its owner’s absence becomes a swanky town-house, not unlike those just a stone’s throw from the Gatehouse Theatre in Highgate Hill, and the pizza boxes and beer cans strewn across the simple yet effective set perfectly evoke the anarchic saturnalia of a free house overrun by teenage reprobates. The bawdy lyricism of the 17th century language, too, slips into 21st-century urban inflection with beautiful ease, aided by the generally strong leading trio.
Dominic Chambers gives a mixed performance as Face, the leader of the “venture tripartite” – he is well-cast as a baby-faced cheeky chappy, but one can only hope that drama school will iron out his profoundly irksome stage habits. Sahil Batra and Louise Laker outshine him as his partners in crime, revelling in their character’s impersonations of deranged noblewomen, public-spirited do-gooders and quasi-messianic healers, all in the name of getting one over on the parade of gullible, money-hungry prey that is lured into the house.
The lampooning of the grasping gallery of fools is just as funny today as it was 400 years ago – particularly well-observed is Pearce Sampson’s Dapper, taking off his tie and popping his contrast collar as he nervously waits outside the house, low-riding the trousers of his three-piece suit like a public schoolboy meeting a drug-dealer.
Admittedly, the riots idea seems to be forgotten within about 15 minutes, and the camped-up satire descends too frequently into plain bad acting, but none of the beery audience came for a study in technical naturalism. They came for the rollicking fun of a play that remains as vibrant, animated and eccentric as the city in which it is set, and, unlike the dramatis personae, I think we got our money’s worth.