If ever there were a perfect venue for a little faux alchemy, it’s Just the Tonic’s Caves. In a large, low-ceilinged stone room, mood lighting creates the perfect setting for Ben Jonson’s classic The Alchemist. Unfortunately what follows seems a little too chaotic for the space… but then again, Renaissance plays have never been known for their smooth production values. Just look at Shakespeare.
If you’ve never heard of The Alchemist, I’ll endeavour to provide as short a summary as I can. Jeremy, a butler, is left behind to keep house after his master temporarily quits town. In the ensuing time before Master Lovewit returns, Jeremy and his two companions, Subtle and Dolly, seek to rob several people of their gold and possessions by means of some mystical and supernatural conning. In this hour and fifteen-minute production there are a lot of costume changes, accent variations and slapstick manoeuvres. If you’ve never seen or read the play before, you might find yourself struggling to remember some names. But no matter; it’s not particularly detrimental.
What does matter immensely is keeping the plot right. Coleridge famously noted that The Alchemist had one of the most “perfect plots” in the English canon, and I’m pleased to say the Oxford University Dramatic Society has done an admirable job maintaining it. Obviously, having such a short space of time to deliver such a complex play means the production is somewhat rushed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in terms of comic timing. The pace is quick, but not taxingly so, and I felt constantly engaged – even if I was sometimes almost overwhelmed.
In terms of performance, there were some sublime moments of overacting which, I would argue, fit the genre quite well. But I assume the quick nature of it didn’t gel with the entire audience, as the play failed to get as many laughs as it deserved; I’d caution you against buying a ticket if you have a preference for more subtle comedy.
It’s the staging that arguably lets the production down. Several times I saw characters that weren’t yet part of the scene traipsing around the front of the action. Perhaps that’s meant to be part and parcel of an intentionally chaotic production, but I found it a little distracting. Moreover, the cast has billed this production as shamelessly modern, yet I without the benefit of a programme I struggled to define just what era they were aiming for.
All in all, it’s quick, it’s rushed and it’s physical, and it does as much justice to the original as it can in seventy-five minutes. It’s probably not the best piece of theatre you’ll see this Fringe – but if you have some time to kill and you want to see a solidly good show, head down to the Caves.