By Danielle Farrow
The feeling that, if not reviewing, you would just walk out of a show occurs rarely and normally portends a one star response. The start of Oxford University Dramatic Society’s production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist is made hideous by shouting: performer after performer shouting, for no discernible reason, at each other and the audience. This is not decent projection, nor infusing the start of your play with rigorous energy – it is simply a bad performance, ruling out any chance of subtlety, nuance and range, let alone true characterisation and connection.
Thankfully, this settled down and the result was actually an entertaining romp through Jonson’s witty satire of greed at all levels of society, with great archetypal characters reasonably, and occasionally very well, portrayed by these students. Their own fun, while sometimes leading to out-of-character hilarity due to a certain lack of focus, was infectious, and the audience decently entertained.
The plot requires versatility from a number of the performers and this was seen, with changes of accent and some physicality, though the latter could definitely have been stronger. The farcical elements of trying to deal with increasingly ill-timed visitors, most of whom are expecting different hosts, is well handled, and the pace kept up. This is a tale of ‘cozening’, of cheats and thieves, and reflects on the kind of scamming that isn’t just about gullibility, but also the wish for a quick and easy fix for problems. While the first recorded performance of Jonson’s play was in 1610, the setting here – rather than being contemporary (the company claims the production is ‘urgently contemporary’) – seems more late 1960s / start of ’70s, given the general costuming, and this would fit with still retaining the monetary language, i.e. having pounds and shillings.
The set is rather cramped. Pieces of furniture, including a shelved case for ornaments, and cases for travelling along with other household items are scattered about, and some is unnecessary clutter impeding smooth movement. A metal frame supports a wooden frame for a window and a door, but more than one actor puts their hands through what ought to be solid around these. There is little room for movement outside this frame, which is required, and pace is slightly stalled when visitors awkwardly leave the visible front door upstage to the front of the stage to be seen talking outside the hosue. Music is not obviously apt, sometimes jarring, occasionally irritating, and may be a (bad) reason for the initial shouting. The advertised ‘fusing’ of the production with dance turns out to be a fun little boogie tagged on at the end.
Despite flaws, though, this student production has managed to condense a classic script and give it a relatively modern setting, while retaining the integrity of its intention, humour and structure. The Alchemist is presented here with plenty of fun and a certain vivacity that, coupled with clear characterisation of well-drawn roles, rescues it from an appalling start, which can itself be easily amended.
31 July – 24 August (not 12), 17:55 (19:10) @ Just the Tonic at The Caves