The Alchemist

BEN BLYTH finds a production that betters the play, and tells Cambridge theatre to up its game. Ian McKellen does not comment.

Ben Blyth ben jonson Blyth Ian McKellen Joey Batey John Haidar jonson marlowe society nick ricketts the alchemist Will Seaward

ADC Theatre, 12th-16th October, 7.45pm, £5-7

Directed by John Haidar


Jonson’s script is nothing short of a theatrical nightmare. Densely packed with 17th Century political and social satire, and more than a little dreck, the Marlowe Society had certainly lain down the gauntlet for theatrical endeavour in Cambridge. The script has been thoroughly (and thankfully) sexed up, however; Haidar and the cast giving Jonson a proper good going over and adding real bite to an otherwise outdated social commentary. My favourites included any mention of Poo, Dildos or Lady Gaga. Modernisation was handled intelligently and was never overbearing, overdone, or crass.

The story follows the adventures of two conmen – Subtle (Nick Ricketts) and Face (Joey Batey) as they swindle and swive their way to prospective fortunes at the expense of all and sundry. Both have some unenviable passages of text and it is a great credit to both Ricketts and Batey that the audience were with them from the start. The pair have an air of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about them, yet they manage to pass the proactive impetus seamlessly. The final scene breaking the partnership was delivered with real gravitas, showing that both actors are capable of more than mere Jonsonian farce.

Five stars.

The virtuoso performances of the leads were ably supported by an immensely talented cast, who seemed to revel in every nuance they could eke from Jonson’s ‘monstrous archetypes’. There is no better example of the careful handling of awkward renaissance text than the performance of Will Seaward (Epicure Mammon). He relished in delivery – so much so that one felt lines like ‘Oh my voluptuous mind’ were written especially for him, in an act of astonishing foresight by Jonson himself. Eat your heart out ‘Sir’ ‘Ian’. There are so many performances worthy of a mention I haven’t got the space to name them all – suffice it to say, each performer contributed admirably to the class and verve of a production that was far above your average ADC mainshow.

There was also an astonishingly well-crafted aesthetic, with an incredible variety of set pieces (the Cornflake box typifying the quirky attention to detail displayed by the crew). The inclusion of the ‘road’ downstage was an excellent touch, providing us with both an introduction to the Gulls while rather generously providing the supporting cast with their chance to show off.  The lighting, designed by Simon Gethin Thomas and operated by Tony Dent, provided a wonderful contrast between the internal and the external, giving the lodgings of Subtle and Face an oddly homely feel. The cunning of the set and precision of the  lighting and sound cues ensured we were inexorably drawn closer to the action rather than distracted by fandanglements.

The Marlowe Society are onto a winner here. A production that is better than the play itself; slick, accomplished and thoroughly enjoyable – for me, Haidar’s ‘Alchemist’ has reassured Cambridge’s place at the forefront of student theatre.