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Review of The RSC's The Alchemist at the Barbican Theatre

While the cat's away, the mice will play. And so it proves yet again in Ben Johnson's riotous 17th-century London comedy The Alchemist in which, after a Blackfriars gentleman decamps to the countryside to avoid the Plague sweeping through London and his housekeeper uses the opportunity to use it as the headquarters to operate a series of conman conspiracies from, with his collaborators Subtle and Dol Common.

The result is not exactly a subtle show -- but its a very supple one in Poly Findlay's fast moving and fluid production. It turns out to be one of the RSC's classic comedy romps, a truly inventive and inspired show that has the Barbican auditorium reverberating to an almost constant soundtrack of laughter.

With playwright Stephen Jeffreys adding a new prologue as well as script revisions, it is not quite as radical an overhaul as Richard Bean did for Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters in One Man Two Guvnors, but it has the same effortless élan and a round of performances whose outrageousness is infectious.

Mark Lockyer is particularly inspired and relentlessly energetic in the title role of Subtle: it's a bit like watching Alan Rickman reincarnated on speed. He is ably abetted by Ken Nwosu, servant of the house, and Siobhan McSweeney as the buxom Dol Common.

As the series of customers lining up for the alchemist's services, there's also hilarious work from Joshua McCord, Richard Leeming, Ian Redford, Tim Samuels, Timothy Speyer, John Cummins, Tom McCall and Rosa Robson. Every single one is beautifully inhabited (and in the case of Redford's verbose Sir Epicure Mammon and Tom McCall's flouncing and furious Kastril, uninhibited).

This is the RSC at the top of their form; the company is having a busy late summer, opening three productions back-to-back in London and Stratford-upon-Avon on consecutive nights, soon after a London-bound King Lear also opened in Stratford, but it doesn't get better than this.


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