Ben Jonson’s classic play is a tight, well-structured satire depicting and dissecting the follies and weaknesses of Renaissance England.
The vices it portrays, however, such as greedy credulity and superstition, are truly timeless, shown through the two charismatic conmen, one of whom poses as the titular alchemist, swindling the mercantile classes of London.
The entire play, therefore, rests on the shoulders of the actors portraying the characters of Subtle and Face, in this case William Tyrell and Aiden Russell. Unfortunately, in this case, they simply can’t support it.
There is a particular sort of performance, usually reserved for plays-within-plays, that is consciously stilted and slightly forced, distinguishing between the act and the more naturalistic “non-play” play. This is how they deliver every line.
It is not clear whether this is a deliberate directorial decision, but it means that, since there are many points when the characters have to assume other personas or put on acts of their own, this reaches an almost pantomime level of unnaturalness, except it isn’t fun.
The delivery also renders many of the lines extremely difficult to understand, with strange emphases and pauses.
This is a real shame, because most of the supporting cast are very good. Claire Morley is an excellently soothing force on the pair as prostitute Dol Common, while Stephen Greatly and Frances Avery work well as the charmingly naïve victims of the scam.
It ends up working against the production, though, as their performances mean the audience ends up being far more sympathetic with those who are intended as the point of the satire.
The costumes are lovely, though being OUDS wardrobe regulars, you may recognise them from every other period piece in Oxford.
A lot of potential here, but ultimately a disappointment.