First published in The Times, Friday October 11 2019
When Mark Twain observed that “humour is tragedy plus time” he may well have had The Alchemist in mind. Ben Jonson’s 1610 play about a trio of con artists who commandeer a gentleman’s house for a series of scams is the original riotous farce, complete with door slamming, mistaken identity and characters hiding in cupboards and lavatories. Yet its humour is savage, the language violent and the backdrop — a plague-ridden London — forbidding.
Following Jonson’s claim in his prologue that “no country’s mirth is better than our own”, Gary McNair’s adaptation transfers the play’s action to Glasgow and conflates Jonson’s scheming trio into a delicious pairing: Louise McCarthy’s housekeeper Face and her preening acolyte Subtle (Grant O’Rourke). McNair’s script, written in rhyming couplets that range from the deliberately awkward to the inspired, brings a certain levity that’s lacking in the original.
Pic: John Johnston
McNair’s version is written for six actors and the director Andy Arnold makes a virtue of necessity, with the doubling and trebling of roles among the supporting cast really ramping up the production’s sense of bustle and spontaneity. The ensemble also interacts seamlessly with Charlotte Lane’s multi-levelled set, where, like McCarthy and O’Rourke’s confidence tricksters, nothing is quite what it seems. A stuffed bookcase turns into a revolving door; a model of a globe is found to contain glasses and drinks; pictures and decorations pop aside to reveal the tormented faces of the scammed.
There is a genuine sense of organised chaos at work here, particularly as the intrigue gathers momentum in the second half and various props and elements of the set break free from their moorings and roll across the stage.
Pic: John Johnston
For all the strong comic timing, gaudy colour and outrageous characterisations, though, Arnold’s production rarely acquires much depth or makes an attempt to rise above the grotesque. McNair’s script is amusing but it lacks the satirical edge that could take it to a darker place. Only McCarthy’s Face is allowed a degree of character hinterland. She provides the one note of poignancy in an otherwise enjoyable but superficial entertainment.