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The Alchemist review at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘glittering and witty’

Mark Lockyer in The Alchemist at the Swan Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks Mark Lockyer in The Alchemist at the Swan Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Polly Findlay has turned Ben Jonson’s satire into a magnificent mash-up of Blackadder and Hustle. Her take on The Alchemist is a zippy city comedy, fast-paced and properly comic, with a real ear for Jonson’s particular rhythms

It’s 1610, London is beset by plague and manservant Jeremy has been tasked with looking after his master’s house. Taking on the alias Face, he joins forces with counterfeit necromancer Subtle and bawd Dol Common, and together they set about persuading the city’s remaining knights and gallants that they can grant them wealth and success, that they can make base things precious.

Though Stephen Jeffreys has shaved some 20% off the text, it’s still a dense and giddy thing. The plot gets knottier and knottier as Jonson piles on con after con. But Findlay’s production cuts right through this complexity. She makes every line shine, every joke land. It’s a glittering and witty production, full of playful touches – there’s a lovely A-Team gag in here, a Face for a Face. Evocatively designed by Helen Goddard, the set resembling a 17th century still life, all velvet and candle-light, skulls and alligators, the production never overplays its contemporary relevance and is blessed with an impeccable cast.

Everyone’s on the same page, from Ian Redford, adding to his growing collection of wonderfully puce buffoons with his turn as the verbose Sir Epicure Mammon, to Siobhan McSweeeney, whose timing as Dol is spot on. Ken Nwosu exudes charm as charismatic grifter Face but it’s Mark Lockyer’s performance, as the leonine Subtle, that pins things together. He’s an intense, magnetic presence, permanently set in fast-forward, hands like humming birds and chin like a conductor’s baton. The man put his knee out on press night but he still carried on. Give him all the prizes. Shower him with gold.

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Sparkling and playful production of Jonson’s witty, city comedy