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Theatre reviews: The Alchemist (Tron) & The Stornoway Way (Eastwood Park Theatre)

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Three stars

Until October 19

The Stornoway Way

Eastwood Park Theatre, Giffnock

Two stars

Touring until October 30

By MARK BROWN

Ben Jonson’s early-17th century comedy The Alchemist is a classic of pre-Civil War English drama. This new adaptation for the Tron Theatre Company, written by Gary McNair, directed by Andy Arnold and relocated from London to Glasgow, appears to have leapt into the 21st century, whilst leaving a foot in Jonson’s 1600s.

In the original play, wealthy Londoner Lovewit flees the city to avoid the plague, leaving his splendid house (re-imagined here with glorious eccentricity by designer Charlotte Lane) in the hands of his butler Face. The servant then assembles a gang of three, including Subtle (the supposed alchemist of the title), using his master’s property as the base of operations for a criminal conspiracy to scam the gullible of their cash and valuables.

McNair (as one would expect of the author of the anti-sexist play Locker Room Talk) is clearly not impressed by the fact that, in Jonson’s original, the only female characters are a prostitute (Dol Common, the third conspirator) and the unpleasantly named, naive widow Dame Pliant. The former is simply struck out of McNair’s version, while the latter (the finest in a series of cross-cast characters) is played, hilariously, by the bearded Robert Jack.

This leaves us with a criminal duo of Face (the superb Louise McCarthy, playing a master of disguise with delicious improbability) and Subtle (the extravagantly ludicrous Grant O’Rourke). The panoply of characters who are “gulled” by the miscreants are played by a cast (completed by Neshla Caplan, Jo Freer and Stephen Clyde) each of whom, in true farce style, tackle two or three roles.

The production, in which characters are pushed through doors or exit the hallway by means of a revolving wall cabinet, is extremely humorous at times. There is also great fun in McNair’s bold insertion of modern Glaswegianisms into an occasional, classical rhyme scheme.

Although the play (which, perfectly reasonably, seems to borrow heavily from Blackadder and Monty Python) has many truly funny moments, it lacks both Jonson’s satirical sharpness and his unity of dramatic purpose. Jonson was sending up certain well-defined targets of his day: the greedy and lascivious nobleman Sir Epicure Mammon was a recognisable archetype, as were the Dutch Anabaptists and, in line with the particular xenophobia of Jacobean England, a random “Spaniard”.

One can’t help but feel that McNair has missed an opportunity: for instance, Freer’s Mammon, a bawd with a northern English, working-class accent, bears no discernible similarity to any of an array of contemporary political or business figures who seem ripe for satire.

If the production’s characterisations are uneven, so, too, is its pace. Despite the Herculean efforts of McCarthy, O’Rourke and a generally impressive cast (including, towards the play’s end, the truly Blackadder-esque appearance of Clyde’s Lovewit, attired as for the 17th century) there is a sense that, tremendously enjoyable though it is, this adaptation lacks a clear sense of its own identity.

Where the Tron show doesn’t quite deliver on its promise, Dingwall-based touring company Dogstar’s latest offering, Kevin MacNeil’s stage adaptation of his acclaimed novel The Stornoway Way, falls painfully flat. Leaving aside the perennial debate over why theatre directors insist on staging adaptations of novels (rather than purpose-written stage plays), I’ve long thought that episodic (rather than psychological) prose fictions are particularly resistant to theatrical treatment.

MacNeil would, I suspect, protest, and not without justification, that his novel about the travels and travails of drink-addled, Lewis-born musician R Stornoway is both episodic and psychological. However, the narrative detail of the original book requires MacNeil to have actors break from character to explain aspects of the story to the audience. A common feature of stage adaptations of novels, this device does nothing for the momentum of the play.

However, if director Matthew Zajac starts off with a script that is problematic structurally, he compounds that difficulty with his choices. All characters are played by a young, female cast of three, including the alcoholic (and, consequently, dangerously selfish) musician (named Roman here), his long-suffering soul mate and manager Eilidh, and Eva, the Hungarian, Edinburgh-based student whose hospitality he abuses,.

With the best will in the world, one cannot describe the ensemble as anything other than variable and out of its depth. Naomi Stirrat is a promising and dynamic actor, but the role of the hard drinking, charismatic Roman stretches her abilities. She can also sing and play guitar, even if the acoustic songs she plays are a tad insipid.

Between them, director Zajac and the acting trio (completed by Rachel Kennedy and Chloe-Ann Tylor) simply cannot find the play’s rhythm, if, indeed, it has one. Consequently, the production feels stilted and cobbled together.

Ali Maclaurin’s semi-abstract set (which has to try to represent various settings, from a Lewis Kirk to the Edinburgh park where Roman and Eilidh are forced to sleep) is unremarkable. It’s hardly culpable, though, for a disappointingly weak staging of an acclaimed novel.

For tour details for The Stornoway Way, visit: dogstartheatre.co.uk

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