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The Alchemist – Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London

Writer: Ben Jonson

Director: Jon Barton

Reviewer: James Waddell

[rating:2.5]

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.

Runs until

 

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2 comments

  1. I agree, Pearce Sampson was excellent. I don’t agree Laker and especially Batra, we’re better than Chambers though. All very raw and maybe too big for them all to carry off. I did see it on the first night though so maybe it was simply nerves. I also think ‘over acting’ isnt the right term of phrase. The Alchemist is basically a slapstick farce of the Jacobean period. Complete naturalism wouldn’t work. The problem I think with this production is that it just seemed a bit messy and clumsy, as though not everyone knew what they were doing. Pearce Sampson and Timo Wilman are worth the ticket price alone though. Worth a watch.

  2. The production as a whole is sweet and a nice time passer but it’s not one for the history books, goes down well with a pint though. Afternoon frolics with random song choices should be the tag line. Great facials from some actors.