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)

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