Every time a character mentions the philosopher's stone in The Alchemist I can't help but think of Harry Potter. If you don't know the play but know the Potter series then you'll understand why the very idea of the stone's existence gets the characters in The Alchemist excited (and avaricious).
In Ben Jonson's play Subtle (Mark Lockyer), a conman, tricks a rich gentleman and some Anabaptists into believing that he can produce the stone. It is one method that he and his fellow tricksters - Face (Ken Nwosu), a butler and Dol Common (Siobhan McSweeney) a prostitute - use to embezzle money from unsuspecting acquaintances. The house where Face works is the front for their business while his master is out of London avoiding the plague.
The charlatan and his partners have also tricked a gambler into believing they can get him a lucky charm from the fairy queen and a shopkeeper that Subtle can advise on the most propitious design and layout for his new tobacco shop. Of course there is one debunker of 'the alchemist's' powers in the form of Surly who sets about trying to expose him as a thief.
Throw in a rich young widow, her brother who wants to learn to duel and debate and Dol getting mistaken for a lady and the scene is well and truly set.
Subtle, Face and Dol find themselves juggling 'clients' and subterfuge which increases the risk of their exposure in what becomes a comic caper, that is fast pace and has some good laugh out loud moments. I say 'becomes' because it is a long set up which makes the first half feel a little slow despite the great performances. In the second half it pays off nicely though and often in an explosive manner which makes it worth it.
Jonson's play makes fun of human greed, vice and vanity, showing how easily blinded the characters are by personal desire. Not everyone gets their comeuppance but perhaps that is Jonson's way of showing that the world isn't fair either.
The Alchemist is on at the Swan Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon until August 6 then it transfers to London's Barbican Theatre from Sept 2 to Oct 1. It is two hours and forty minutes including an interval and I'm giving four stars.
The RSC's rather superb production of Hamlet is still playing in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon until Aug 13.