First Night: The Alchemist, Olivier National Theatre, London

Alchemists work miracles in updating classic Jonson satire
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The Independent Culture

We live in the age of the supposedly miracle makeover and all the misplaced faith and quackery that that entails. The gullible believe they can solve the problems of existence via a wonder-diet, or by getting through a heat on The X Factor. So it's smart of Nick Hytner to transpose The Alchemist, Ben Jonson's brilliant Jacobean satire about the dubiousness of transformation to the present day in his fresh, inventively funny production in the Olivier's Travelex £10 season.

The play's trio of fraudsters operate the scam of pretending to know the secret of turning base metal to gold, a con trick that involves blinding the victims with bogus science. But alchemy also has a metaphoric dimension in the play. The humdrum wishes of the dupes who are lured to the Blackfriars house are converted into fantastical aspirations by the hoaxers who know how to exploit the clients' dream picture of themselves.

Quick-change artistry is the kind of transformation at which the charlatans are genuinely adept. Playing together for the first time in their distinguished careers, Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale are a joy as Subtle and Face, the mutually resentful duo who, with sidekick-whore Dol Common (excellent Lesley Manville), turn the house that Face is looking after in his master's absence into a crazy dream factory. Tailoring his act to each victim, Jennings dazzlingly shuffles identities that range from a Haight-Asbury-style hippy to a pious New Age guru and a fluting Scot. Likewise, Russell Beale's Face shape-shifts hilariously - now a limping loon from the Low Countries as the goggled furnace-tender "Lungs"; now a model of probity in a daft toupee as the "Captain". Deliciously signalling the bitchy power games, reciprocal testing and shared private jokes that continue even when they are jointly bamboozling the dupes, they make a great double act.

The production finds some neat contemporary equivalents for the concocted solutions. A superstitious Indian tobacconist is palmed off with wacky feng shui; a public school hooray who fancies himself as an angry young man becomes a hopelessly amateur cool-dude rapper. Sir Epicure Mammon is well-played by Ian Richardson as a mild, melancholic gent and here brings a delectably pedantic note to the knight's pornographic fantasies.

I never properly understood the geography of the set and the updating does few favours to the relationship between the scam and the returning master. But I disagree with the idea that the multiplicity of accents in the production demonstrates a lack of faith in the dense, difficult text. To my ear, the different accents heightened, through defamiliarisation, a sense of its comic richness.

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