The basic premise of The Alchemist (gulling the gullible) has all the crude elements of farce, and Jonson chose to portray a colourful array of Londoners as types, rather than characters. Yet even grotesques need a humanity – a naturalness which was achieved in some measure by Frances Avery’s naive Drugger, Fen Greatley’s shy Dapper, and Tribulation Wholesome. However it was Jocelyn Knight’s superb performance as Surly – crisply executed, without a false look or gesture and Claire Morley’s inventive Doll Common who engaged one’s interest and sympathy most keenly.
William Tyrrell’s Subtle, whose extravagant gestures, and improbable impersonations sky-rocketed as the play gathered pace, and Aiden Russell’s confident Face, taking on the ventriloquism of many voices, both started too loud, too slow and too crude, gabbling their lines of unfamiliar vocabulary, contributing to the audience’s initial disorientation. By the end of the play, both these talented, confident actors had the pace exactly right, and Russell’s butler’s ponderous Received Pronunciation was one of the best comic touches, in an enjoyable, challenging evening.
Anyone doubting its relevance today needs only to switch on Saturday night prime-time TV. The monstrous self-delusion and breathtaking pipe-dreams, fed by a free-flowing font of cynical flattery which Jonson richly mined, is still with us.