Friday 30 March 2012

The Alchemist @ The White Bear Theatre

The premise behind Let Them Call It Mischief, a new production company set up in 2011, is to revive lesser-known and unusual works of theatre, specifically about London, and to perform them in authentic venues in the capital.  The Alchemist is the company's first production and proved a suitably unusual piece to produce.  Not only was Ben Jonson's play first performed in 1610 at The Theatre, located in Blackfriars not far from The White Bear pub, but nowadays the White Bear Theatre focuses on revivals of lost classics.  Company and theatre in alignment, the production was a comedic success.

The Alchemist is Jonson's most enduring dramatic work.  A contemporary of Shakespeare, he is well known for his satirical comedies and this is no exception.  When gentleman Lovewit (Robert Rowe) is forced to flee his London home for fear of the plague, his butler Face (Danny Wainwright) and partner in crime Subtle (Ed Cartwright) open house to lure in a variety of misfits, with the help of prostitute Dol (Stephanie Hampton).  Each of their victims seeks fantastical concoctions, from the philosopher's stone, to elixirs for eternal life and sexual conquests, in exchange for money.  This set-up allows Jonson, through our two anti-heroes, to mock and satirise the wealthy fools, each representative of different aspects of the human condition, with hilarious consequences.

This production (directed by Danny Wainwright, who bravely and commendably took on the role of Face at short notice) was set in the later Victorian period, though the mismatch of costumes had a slightly confused sense of period.  The set consisted solely of a screen containing a multitude of compartments and doors that were cleverly utilised in comedic ways from scene to scene.  The play is long, though, and the first half in particular felt a little repetitive, the minimal set not allowing for dramatic scene changes.  With some smart editing, a more concise production could have been delivered along with the streamlined set.  The second half, with its unraveling denouement, provided a quick succession of laughs that kept the drama moving at a considerable pace.  The Benny Hill-esque music, though out of sync with the setting, added to the general hilarity.

The acting was the highlight of this production though, the young cast coping well with Jonson's wordy yet witty script.  Stephanie Hampton's Dol immediately brought the production to life from the opening scene, her flirtatious mannerisms belying her character's manipulative ways.  Danny Wainwright's Face, with a variety of stuck-on facial hair accessories to represent (literally) different faces, had some amusing moments and ad-libs that were balanced well by Ed Cartwright's mystical Subtle.  James McGregor meanwhile, with great stage presence, was an imposing figure as the skeptic Surly, later returning with hysterical consequences as a Spanish Don.  Andrew Venning (Mammon) and Phil Featherstone (Drugger) were wonderfully eccentric, if a little overly exaggerated.  But this can be forgiven, the grotesque caricatures on display providing a colourful bunch of fools.

Let Them Call It Mischief have struck gold with a talented ensemble and offbeat choice of play.  Their next project will undoubtedly be an exciting one, whatever piece of unusual drama they choose to produce.


Watch: The Alchemist is performed from the 27th March to the 14th April at the White Bear Theatre, Kennington.