The Alchemist by Ben Jonson

Tuesday, 27th November 2012 at TBD

Location: The Dixon Studio, Palace Theatre, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, UK

This event is in the past.


Ben Jonson's  rarely seen The Alchemist is a triumph in every way for Southend Shakespeare Company and new director Jeremy Hill in the Palace Theatre's Dixon Studio until Saturday (December 1).

I have only seen one previous production of the early 17th Century farcical comedy and this was at one of the great subsidised natiional theatres and I really cannot remember it being as rewarding as this SSC version.

The Alchemist was Jonson's great success and is believed to have included  Shakespeare among its original  cast for the Bard was a drinking companion of  Jonson and, in fact, several of the characters in the play bear a strong resemblance to those of some of Shakespeare's greatest creations including Falstaff.

Its weakness lies in Jonson's  verbosity which tends to make you just switch off at times.

But the strengths in this production  are in its Terrible Trio who really are the most successful team of con merchants of their time with Andrew Sugden as Subtle, the alchemist, who besides convincing people that he can turn base metals into gold also conjures up a fairy queen and at a lower level such smaller details as which way a shop should face and where its sign should hang.

All this, of course, is for suitable rewards.
The brains behind the outfit is the marvellous Face, another great comedy performance by James Carter, who pulls in the punters and then appears in a variety  of disguises including one which looks suspiciously like a "Richard  hump."

Capping off the trio  is Dot Common, a prostitute with all the right equipment but who is also an uncommonly good actress -- another gem of a performance from Madeleine  Ayres.

These three are all SSC highly experienced regulars but it is the high standard of performance of their customers and the superb efforts of young newcomers like young Billy Harris as Dapper, a young and innocent lawyer's clerk whose performance when blindfolded and thinking he is in the presence of the fairy queen is really something very.

Another new face to me is Louise Calton who is thoroughly convincing as a fractious deaconess and David Lobley as her very zealous pastor  has a wonderful twinkle in his eye showing what fun he is finding his role.

Fun is the whole essence of this production which is a great ensemble effort with  not a single real weakness in the large cast.

This Alchemist is SSC at their best and Jeremy Hill and his production team creating effective props and effects and great costumes  deserve  all the praises going.



BAWDY, raucous and powering along at a violent pace more normally associated with TV cartoons than with classic 17th century English theatre, The Alchemist is a life force of a play that picks an audience up by the scruff of the neck from the first word. Then it takes everyone for a wild, almost physically exhausting, two and a half hour ride.

This air of wild entertainment is accelerated still further in Southend Shakespeare Company's production by the use of theatre in the round, which turns the action into a sort of teeming circus ring.

Yet while generally hilarious, the Alchemist is tinged with just a touch of regret. Ben Jonson's plays, even the Alchemist, his masterpiece, are all too seldom staged. This production begs the question why?

True, even if you know the plot of The Alchemist, it can be hard to keep up with the lightning twists and turns of events or the identity of the characters who pour through Lovewit's London house and the street outside its leaded windows.

True, some of the language needs a bit of focused attention, but no more than with Shakespeare.

These are small issues set beside the pleasures of a play that pumps adrenalin into your system as it proceeds and makes you more conscious of being alive. No writer ever, not even Dickens, has been more adept at presenting the seething underbelly of London, and making an exhilarating experience out of it.

The quick-thinking conman and pimp, Face (James Carter) at the heart of the action could have walked straight off the streets of 21st century rather than Jacobean London. Ditto the resourceful tart Dol Common (the marvellous Madeleine Ayres) who lends her body but also her considerable brainpower to Face's schemes.

Entrusted with the upkeep of his master Lovewit's house while the boss flees the London plague. Face exploits his absence, using the house as the base for a multi-pronged scam. The come-on is the promise of Face's partner-in-crime, the alchemist Subtle (Andrew Sugden), to turn any metal into gold. But as Face's schemes start colliding with each other, the farcical chaos poses a challenge even to his ingenuity.

The sprawling action and babbling dialogue could lurch out of control without a confident hand to guide the production. First-time director Jeremy Hill provides it. The cast are well up to SSC standards, which means terrific. There are particularly strong turns from Ross Norman-Clarke as the fat, randy knight Sir Epicure, and from Rob Moore as the gamester Surly. A special round of applause should also go to the team responsible for the costumes, notably the Spanish codpiece with a mind of its own. Don't ask - it's just that sort of play.

Tom King

Character   Played By
Subtle   Andrew Sugden
Face   James Carter
Doll Common   Madeleine Ayres
Dapper   Billy Harris
Drugger   John Newell
Epicure Mammon   Ross Norman-Clarke
Surly   Rob Moore
Tribulation   Dave Lobley
Ananias   Louise Calton
Kastril   Maz Clements
Dame Pliant   Cathy Memery
Lovewit   Ian Downie
Townsperson   Julie Carter
Townsperson   Elizabeth Kaye
Townsperson   Sue Morley
Townsperson   Amy Wilson
Townsperson   Jake Castle
Director   Jeremy Hill
Assistant Director   Madeleine Ayres
Website Liaison   Steve Pilley
Assistant Director   James Carter
Stage Manager   Amy Wilson
Lighting & Sound   Peter Finlay
Music/Arts - Drama

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