The Victorian era is a good fit for Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, conjuring to mind as it does the parlour trickery and sleight of hand that ‘psychics’ of the time employed to part the credulous and their money. It was also the time of music hall, to which Danny Wainwright’s production for new company Let Them Call It Mischief heartily doffs its pseudo-mystical hat.
The plot concerns two conmen, Subtle and Face, who team up to gull as many citizens of plague stricken London as they can get away with. Face assumes various disguises to hook in new marks, bringing them to Subtle who, in his own guise as the eponymous alchemist, extorts them with promises including, but not limited to: good fortune, an audience with the Queen of the fairies, and even the philosopher’s stone itself. When the sceptical associate of one intended victim smells a rat, the two grifters struggle to keep their plethora of confidence tricks separate, until the whole enterprise collapses about their ears, forcing them to flee empty handed.
For a play in which one of the leads is called Subtle, this production mostly isn’t. Right from the off, the cast caper around Ele Slade’s cleverly designed all-in-one set with huge gusto and energy. In the opening sequence this enthusiasm was at risk of losing the already thin setup of Jonson’s text, and I worried that I might be in for a bewildering if high octane couple of hours.
As the actors settled in and the action took hold, what emerged was something altogether more enjoyable, if frustratingly two-faced (no pun intended).
Danny Wainwright does well, having stepped into the role of Face due to unforeseen circumstances, but his in-character guises are a microcosm of the production’s duality. His fire drake, Lungs, is beautifully observed, subtle and believable. His bluff Captain Face is over the top and caricatured. In the first instance we are asked to see how good a trickster he is, whereas in the second we are required to raise his victims’ level of credulity to jarring extremes.
Likewise, the production seems to sway from moments of absolute theatrical delight (a wonderfully nuanced and perfectly delivered monologue from Ed Cartwright’s Subtle, attempting to dispel Surly’s scepticism about the philosopher’s stone is a particular highlight), to moments of pantomime so broad as to tax credibility.
Either of these approaches applied consistently would create a world we could buy into more fully. The cast commendably play both with equal relish, but the constant competition of the two makes for a bumpy evening, particularly if, like me, you’re a sucker for subtlety over slapstick or vice versa.
There are fine performances on both sides of this divide. James McGregor’s sceptic Surly is pleasingly direct and down to earth, bringing real clarity to the chaos. Andrew Venning brings every ounce of energy and bombast he has into his preening Mammon. Walking the divide perfectly, though, is Claire Cartwright’s spirited puritan Ananais. Cartwright shows that a wonderfully funny performance can also be thoroughly authentic and believable, managing somehow to elevate passive aggression to a comic art form.
This clearly talented company work well together, and I look forward to seeing more of their work as they continue to develop. This production, all about duality, fittingly left me in two minds. I laughed, but I also frowned. Though there’s more to like than dislike, the moments of lovely smoothness make the rough bits all the much more prickly.