A journalist on this paper is not best placed to indulge in a wholesale bashing of the Eighties. Without certain aspects of that decade, there would be no Independent and thus no job. But one can still experience a vicarious thrill when somebody else points out that those were not the days. We're in luck, on that score, at the moment. In the same week that brought us a biting revival of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, the director Joss Bennathan and his Present Moment Theatre Company offer a wonderfully fresh and hilarious Eighties update of Ben Jonson's great Jacobean comedy, The Alchemist.
There's a risk that it flatters the decade to transplant Jonson's protean tricksters and their gulls to that money-is-sexy, greed-is-good period. For while the various "alchemist"-visiting dupes (who range from a couple of grasping, humbugging Anabaptists to an epicurean knight whose idea of heaven would be Hugh Hefner's Playboy mansion) are certainly motivated by greed, they are also in the market for something less tangible; a fantastical makeover of their lives. Anyone who can remember Friday nights in London during the Eighties may contend that, by contrast, the primary impulse of yuppiedom was to get hog-whimperingly drunk on the showiest vintages available.
That caveat aside, the production is immensely persuasive. I have never been in a swanky London Docklands flat, but I fancy that this is where we are. The doors through which the dupes get unceremoniously bundled, as the tricksters ingeniously juggle their multiple frauds, are arranged in a shallow curve. If this gives the place too much of the look of a hotel rather than a private dwelling, it's typical of the production that it converts a self-imposed problem into an advantage. The unnerving knocks that usually propel The Alchemist onwards may be missing in this quiet and semi-remote-controlled world, but Bennathan choreographs some very funny moments where, because of an overbooking of gulls, the doors smash people in the face.
The cast do a terrific job of bringing out the forward drive in Jonson's often quiddity-crammed verse, while the updating serves to highlight those many moments when, to our ears, this playwright seems to strike a note of pure modern "camp". The recreation of the Anabaptists as Southern fundamentalist zealots (Rosalind Adler, Steve Nealon) yields great comic dividends, while it makes inspired sense of Kastril and his wants to present him as the kind of tweedy young chump who could not read The Spectator without moving his lips. Kate Penning is bliss as a Dame Pliant who's a vacant ninny-in-a-mini with a spearmint bow.
In the exhaustingly difficult role of the fake alchemist, Subtle, the versatility of Don Gilet gleams and beglamours. His is a performance full of delightful details, like the little flinch he gives when he overhears his colleague making a tricky promise-too-far to one of their victims. A slick-backed Arthur Caulfield is a very young Face, suggesting that there's something dangerously unformed in this identity-shuffling character. His "real" persona as the butler is a default position rather than a true self. The actor could perhaps have made something creepier of this.
To reinvent Lovewit, the owner of the house, as another yuppie makes the speed with which the character exploits the situation to his own advantage less of a comic surprise, but it strengthens the coherence of this very enjoyable and very Jonsonian account of the play.
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