The Alchemist @ Pleasance Theatre, London

cast list
Maria Fernanda Guirao
Lauren Hassan-Leslie
T J Holmes
David Kershaw
Mario Vernazza

directed by
Dominic Knutton
Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, a modern fairytale about a boy’s voyage of self-discovery, has warmed hearts and gently inspired minds the world over since its publication in 1988. Having amassed a staggering thirty million sales largely by word of mouth, it has attained the status of a modern classic and was recently voted the most life-changing book of all time.

The story’s charm lies in its simplicity – a young shepherd, Santiago, is inspired by a recurring dream to follow his destiny to the pyramids of Egypt experiencing the challenges of poverty, fear, love and his own personal limitations along the way. It is hard to take a novel that has captured the imaginations of so many and transfer it to the physical realities of the stage so expectations are running high for this adaptation by the Cornish Theatre Collective. In fact, it is difficult to imagine how such a profound journey of the soul will be conveyed by a cast of five in the cosy confines of Islington’s Pleasance Theatre.

Fears are alleviated by laughter at the very start, however, as the shepherd stands surrounded by a flock of narrating sheep who help set the scene. We see Santiago, played by Maria Fernanda Guirao, determined to literally follow his dream of finding treasure, and love, in a far off land as he struggles to gain enough wealth and strength of spirit to leave the life he knows behind. He embarks on a sometimes gruelling trip across the sea from Spain to Morocco then across the Sahara desert to his final destination as fate conspires to introduce him to many different characters, including the enigmatic Alchemist, played by David Kershaw.

Guirao plays a convincing lead as a seemingly nave Andalusian boy and forms the only character with a constant role throughout the play. Kershaw, Mario Vernazza, TJ Holmes and Lauren Hassan-Leslie share all of the remaining parts throughout from sheep, to old crones, to horses and blood-thristy bandits. Their versatility in this respect proves key to maintaining a believable, understandable and, above all, entertaining plot. Suki and Paddy Haughton’s respective costume and set designs are equally as adaptable; the same simple shapes form beds, shop counters, camel backs and mountain tops while drapes evoke the wind and form tents. In addition, battling eagles swoop over the audience and the camel-riding scene is guaranteed to raise a smile.

A gentle humour runs throughout and Holmes is hilarious as the buffooning Englishman whose hopes of becoming an alchemist amount to little more than a lot of reading and a few burnt fingers. The linear plot of the novel is simple and easy to follow with the depth being found in the meaning rather than any complex threads within the story. This fresh, straightforward approach is maintained on stage helping the various morals and lessons retain their clarity. There is always a risk involved in adapting a novel as well-loved and close to people’s hearts as Coelho’s contemporary fable is, but while the spiritual lessons of the novel may have been necessarily condensed and diluted, the cast manages to convey the magical essence of the original text. What is an epic journey is well paced and adeptly concentrated, a credit to director Dominic Knutton, retaining the purity and simplicity that audiences already familiar with the story will demand.

The moral is: it is not where you go that is truly important but what you learn along the way. If you appreciate uplifting theatre that fires your imagination and engages both your mind and heart, you should consider making your own voyage of discovery to see this charming adaptation for yourself.

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