The Caterham Drama department, one of the top co-educational schools in England, brings the infamous ‘The Alchemist’ to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. A farce that focuses on three tricksters and their complicated schemes.
The Edinburgh Fringe craves simplicity, what with the basic staging areas, the restricted time and the rush to get on and off between the many other acts all clambering for the same recognition. ‘The Alchemist’, as some will know, is not simple but rather the exact opposite. Written by Ben Johnson and first performed in 1610, this Renaissance play is considered Johnson’s most iconic comedy. It unashamedly mocks humanities greed and vanity, which it’s protagonists openly manipulate to their own selfish needs.
A strange choice of play due to the mostly female cast and adding to the mix the fact this is a high school production and their students are the actors, directors, technicians and stage and costume designers, this is a very big gamble.
This ambitious choice unfortunately does not pay off. I became lost fairly quickly although I knew the play. The fast paced dialogue, constant movement and costume changes left a lot of people confused. An unsightly large programme was given out, which contained a barely adapted synopsis taken straight from ‘The Alchemist (play)’ Wikipedia page. It seems the director was aware of how hard this production is to follow, saying ‘This synopsis may help.’ Within the first ten minutes audience members were picking them up off the floor trying to understand what was happening. The programme also contained pictures of each actor in their array of disguises and of course a full-page detailing the boastful accomplishments of the school.
I must stress the actors are incredible for their age bracket. William Ward, who plays our protagonist Face, was very impressive and who I hope to see again in future productions. Other noteworthy mentions are Josie Branson who plays ‘Sir Epicure Mammon’ and ‘Kastril’, Aimee Egglesfield who plays ‘Lovewit’ and Charlotte Cross disguised as the ‘Spanish Count’. Props were pulled out of thin air, bodies disappeared behind the very small curtain rails only to reappear completely transformed in a matter of minutes. Instruments were used when needed and played very well by the performers. I must applaud the costume designers, who have created works of art for this clothing heavy play. Seamless and professional, the company should be incredibly proud of their accomplishment as even a group of weather-beaten, experienced, Shakespearean actors would find this play difficult to execute.
I can’t help but wonder how phenomenal the result would have been if it were a more fitting play choice. But it seems Caterham has bitten off more than they can chew.