review The Alchemist Birmingham Rep

The trio of confidence tricksters at the centre of Ben Jonson's The Alchemist may not know how to turn base metal into gold, but they are certainly adept at other types of transformation. This shows itself not just in the quick-change artistry that enables them to assume almost as many different identities as they have clients. It's also apparent in the almost alchemical effect of their trickery on the gullible dupes who seek their services. With a little artful nudging from this trio, ambitions which were dull and limited take absurd, imaginative flight. The dross of ordinary, humdrum reality is transformed into the fantastical and strange, though of course those being ripped off aren't best placed to appreciate this metaphoric side to the process.

Bill Alexander's wonderfully enjoyable revival (a co-production between Birmingham Rep and the National Theatre) sets the play in "The Future" and peoples it with characters in costumes that drolly miscegenate the modern and the Jacobean (military camouflage slops, say). To judge from William Dudley's vast set, it's a sort of Ben Jonson-meets-Mad-Max future we're contemplating. Lovewit's London house is composed of an eccentric conglomeration of bits of defunct cars (radiators, hub caps etc) and the tricksters keep their ill-gotten dosh in an old Belisha beacon bulb.

There would appear to have been a major energy crisis, but I was puzzled as to what implications this was supposed to have for the drama, beyond establishing a world that might have regressed into compulsive superstition. Why bother, though, to look ahead for this? It struck me, watching the production, that you could find a contemporary counterpart for the credulity satirised in this comedy in New Age circles and their fatuous faiths.

The comic energy of the proceedings and the vibrancy and vividness of the performances quickly stop you from worrying about the context. Simon Callow excels himself as the protean Face, brilliantly scrambling in and out of a medley of disguises - including a plummy, moustachioed blimp, a hump-backed Brummie furnace-tender who seems to be alchemy's answer to Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques and a smirkingly smug butler who dispenses falsehoods in sedate Morningside tones. Eerily, even the Sarf London wideboy he "really" is feels more like a default setting than a true identity, another mask beneath the masks. Delivering the final speech to the audience, Callow emphasises this by shifting around all his preceding accents, a tantalising tease to the end.

He and Tim Pigott-Smith's Subtle adroitly convey the underlying antagonism between these two touchy confederates. Outstanding among the fine gallery of dupes is Geoffrey Freshwater, whose Sir Epicure Mammon, all juddering tumescence at his own kinky fantasies, at one point starts rogering a chair. Which is a good deal further than he gets with Josie Lawrence's wittily hypocritical Doll Common.

To 28 Sept (booking: 0121-236 4455). Then in rep at the Olivier, RNT, from 4 Oct (0171-928 2252)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on