An outbreak of plague in London forces a gentleman, Lovewit, to flee temporarily to the country, leaving his house under the sole charge of his butler, Jeremy. Jeremy takes this opportunity to set up the house as the headquarters for fraudulent acts. He transforms himself into ‘Captain Face’, and enlists the aid of Subtle, a fellow conman, and Doll Common, a prostitute. Their first customer is Dapper, a lawyer’s clerk who wishes Subtle to use his supposed necromantic skills to summon a spirit to help in his gambling ambitions. Their second gull is Drugger, a tobacconist, who is keen to establish a profitable business. Next, a wealthy nobleman, Sir Epicure Mammon, arrives, expressing the desire to gain himself the philosopher’s stone, which he believes will bring him huge material and spiritual wealth. He is accompanied by Surly, a sceptic and debunker of the whole idea of alchemy and who eventually challenges Face and his comrades’ fraudulent activities.
This is a spirited, fast-paced and jovial production of a condensed version of Johnson’s classic comedy in a cavern just off Cowgate in Edinburgh, a suitably musty-smelling and dimly-lit hollow for the dark arts of alchemy to be practised. The space is cramped for what is a fairly elaborate production with a ten-strong cast which alternates roles night to night, but this also adds to the feel of mayhem at the heart of the play. The performances are unfailingly strong, quirky and lively, with Georgia Bruce playing Face on the evening I went making a very watchable and surly slave with more than a touch of the cabaret compere. Not all the comedy can be savoured at this speed, and the production tends towards farce cutting corners around some of the subtler aspects of the play. Still, the language carries across well, with the odd footnote tossed in to help out the audience and the experimental edge to the production makes it seem more like I imagine an Elizabethan performance would have been than anything you will see at the major theatres today. Definitely worth catching if you are at the Fringe and want to turn your old pennies into gold.