There is something pleasingly seedy about Let Them Call It Mischief’s version of Ben Jonson’s classic renaissance farce. A simple set above the White Bear Pub provides an ample backdrop to the action as the actors happily revel in their characters’ follies and madcap plans for swindling each other out of money and dignity in equal measure.

The premise is simple; fearful of an outbreak of the plague, a gentleman departs the town for the countryside, leaving Face, his butler, in charge of his well appointed town house. Taking advantage of this, Face invites his insalubrious friends, Subtle and Dol, to set up shop, conning a parade of unlikely characters (gentlemen, ladies and nuns among them) into parting with their gold in exchange for promises of wealth, marriage and sex.

Subtle presents himself as a mystic and the unsuspecting victims are only too happy to fall under his spell, handing over their cash on the promise that their riches will be multiplied if only they will humiliate themselves in various ways. Ed Cartwright’s superbly witty and varied performance is excellent in showing the glee with which Subtle approaches this undertaking and he succeeds in giving some heart to the character. It is infinitely easier to enjoy Subtle’s plots knowing he takes as much pleasure in the folly of it as he does in the money he hopes to gain.

The humiliations take various forms and although simple, the set provides plenty of opportunity for fun and visual jokes. A wall of drawers and cupboards- appearing as an apothecary’s store room- is a place where poor Dapper, a customer in search of a lucky tip for his gambling habit, is stuffed on his hands and knees, gagged and silenced before Subtle and Face will help him. Drawers are pushed open to reveal chattering hats and faces and curtains drop to reveal explanatory diagrams of their absurd plots and logic. It is all good fun and the audience certainly enjoyed it on the night I was there.

As the conmen’s plans begin to overlap and their increasingly desperate customers threaten to discover the truth, the joyful heights of satire are reached. While Nuns are decried for their hypocrisy and wealthy widows promised some firm young flesh, the classic elements of farce- disguise, mistaken identity and human folly- are all in evidence and pushed to their limits as the trio try to avoid discovery.

Nowhere is the madcap element so utilised as in Andrew Venning’s hilarious performance as Mammon, the skirt chasing, bawdy Knight in search of spiritual enrichment. He pushes the deluded self-obsession of the character to its absolute limit, playing for every available laugh. In another context the performance would simply not work and there are moments when he is in danger of pressing it too far but on the whole it is a welcome performance, done with some panache.

Although not as varied as Cartwright’s Subtle, Mammon works partly because the overall production doesn’t make sufficient use of Jonson’s superb script. At times the pace is rushed and difficult to follow, which means that a lot of the jokes contained within the writing are almost entirely lost, making Venning’s overtly comedic performance a welcome addition here where in another production it would simply not be necessary.

The use of space, too, is disappointing. A downside to the ‘apothecary’s workshop’ set is that as it is not flexible: the actors are forced to work within a thin strip of stage space which gives them little depth to play with and pushes them to the very edge of the audience. Although on occasions this is nicely acknowledged by characters interacting with audience members, on the whole it is frustrating. Too many times they stand in a line to deliver their dialogue or must entirely obliterate their faces by turning their backs to the audience. By more clearly delineating the space and giving the actors more options, perhaps by utilising different vertical levels if constrained by the depth of the stage, Director Danny Wainwright could have helped the actors to overcome these problems.

In doing so, he may also have avoided the second problem the actors face, which is that many of them seem uncomfortable in making convincing satire without overdoing the noise and energy levels. In such a small space, comedic characters need not be obvious; the audience are close enough to see the comedy in a subtle performance and to spot the lack of integrity in an overblown style in an instant.

This is unfortunate as there is much to enjoy in this production and moments are genuinely hilarious. Some of the actors show real comic gift and at points the design and direction show glimmers of real inventiveness. It is worth keeping an eye on this lively, newly formed company.

Editor's note: Please note that director Danny Wainwright stepped is as Face last minute.

The Alchemist, at The White BearSophie Lieven reviews Ben Jonson's The Alchemist at the White Bear Theatre Club.3