Mercurius at The Rose Playhouse, Bankside
Ben Jonson was no stranger to the Rose, but this perfect farce was written for an indoor space, and, ironically given the plot, was premièred in Oxford thanks to the plague.
It was last done on this tiny, temporary stage some three years ago.
Mercurius's riotously lively production begins with Labrinth's Earthquake, shaking the concrete rafters as Subtle and Face unpack their paraphernalia, ready to welcome a succession of the gullible to the house they've “borrowed” in the Blackfriars. Peter Wicks is the duplicitous butler, sporting an eye-patch as the captain, tongs as the alchemist's acolyte. Benjamin Garrison makes a gloriously fruity, flouncy charlatan, flopping onto his chaise longue and wrapping himself in his astrological throw. Doll Commmon, their “colleague”, as the programme coyly has it, is Beth Eyre, just as clever as the chaps at assuming a disguised persona.
Amongst the varied victims, all splendidly portrayed: Monty D'Inverno's Dapper [he was also the angry Kastril], Clark Alexander [who also plays the absent Lovewit, master of the house] as Abel Drugger, seeking to feng shui his tobacconist's shop, and Jeremy Booth's excellent Sir Epicure, eagerly seeking the philosopher's stone and relishing some of Jonson's richest, ripest language. Alec Bennie is his sceptical side-kick Surly, soon to return in Spanish guise. Some of the playwright's sharpest satire is reserved for the Puritans: Charlie Ryall's Anabaptist Ananias and Beth Eyre's splendidly named Tribulation Wholesome. Ryall also gives us Dame Pliant, the widow who weds Lovewit in the deft dénouement.
The echoing void is sparingly, but effectively used – shadowplay for the quarrel, and Mammon's imposing arrival.
“Take but the cues I give you; it shall be brief enough...” Pared down to the statutory ninety minutes, Jenny Eastop's relentlessly pacy Alchemist is fast and furious fun – the tinkly little doorbell scarcely stops ringing. Just the thing to ruffle the cobwebs and rouse the glorious ghosts of the old Rose.