It’s popular to claim that many ancient plays contain universal truths that are still relevant to this very day – and while that may well be very true, certain productions don’t make it easy for their audiences.

At 150 minutes of C17th verbiage, audiences in Liverpool might be forgiven for giving The Alchemist a miss. As the Everyman and Playhouse’s Gemma Bodinetz admits, there probably aren’t too many people about who wake in the morning with a raging desire to see a 17th century farce.

In the case of missing Robert Icke’s interpretation on this amusing, lengthy and wordy farce that would constitute a great shame. The set-up, as it were, is simple: two con-men and a prostitute have a series of confidence scams already in motion, relieving various gullible sorts of their cash and other various treasures by using their desire for success, riches and carnal indulgence against them.

The trio use their guile, wit, charm and ability to pass themselves off as a series of unlikely characters to outwit their marks, but have to keep an increasing amount of plates spinning in order to pull it off. Think of en episode of Hustle crossed with Blackadder II with a dash of The Cook Report and you’re probably on the right track.

However, bookended by two intriguing devices that serve to do something complicated to not only the fourth wall, but any other walls that happen to be in the vicinity, this production of The Alchemist is playful, witty and occasionally rather bonkers.

Icke leaves the text in place, but a number of clever touches emphasise a different aspect of the play – the players’ interactions with the audience and theatre – that may not have been evident in a different production. There’s not too much artifice, but enough to have people laughing, scratching their heads and dodging missiles as if this was a Rock’n’Roll pantomime.

It could all have a bit awry if it were not for a cast who deserve every plaudit. Icke’s desire to rid Jonson’s play of the ‘silly voices’ that can often derail older texts pays off handsomely; and while the weighty text requires an effort of concentration, the naturalistic voices on stage – the rhythm and inflection – make these old characters as familiar as the Del Boys, Arthur Daleys and modern ragamuffins of our screens.

The central trio of Nicolas Tennant, Ian Barthomelew and Lara Rossi are very impressive – the multiple characters, wardrobe changes and accent shown by Tennant and Bartholemew (pictured, top) showing their complete mastery of the production. Every time Simon Coates appeared on stage – yuk-yuking and gourmanding grotesquely – was a real pleasure too.

Remove the verbosity of The Alchemist and there would be little to suggest that this wasn’t a modern farce, but somehow the old and the new, with Icke’s deft touches, combine to create something beyond time, text or form.

The Alchemist is simply very amusing, very impressive and very entertaining. That it’s also a theatrical treat manages to transmute Jonson’s winning text into something even more intriguing.

The Alchemist
Liverpool Playhouse
Until 6 October

Images by Tristram Kenton

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