The Alchemist, National Theatre: Olivier, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fivestar -->

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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 that they can solve the problems of existence via a wonder diet or by getting on to 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, 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 Doll Common (excellent Lesley Manville), turn the house that Face is looking after for his absent master into a crazy dream factory.

Tailoring his act to each victim, Jennings dazzlingly shuffles identities that range from a Haight-Ashbury-style hippie to a pious New Age guru. Likewise, Russell Beale's Face shape-shifts hilariously - now a limping loon from the Low Countries, now a model of probity in a daft blond toupee. They make a great double act, the one as tall and precariously posh as the other is squat and rough.

Sir Epicure Mammon is well played by Ian Richardson as a mild, melancholic gent who probably strays ineffectually from the Garrick to Soho sex shops 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 inconveniently returning master. But I disagree with the idea, expressed by a friend in the interval, 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.

To 21 November (020-7452 3000); a version of this review has already appeared in some editions of the paper

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