Following last year’s rumbustious revival of Volpone under former boss Trevor Nunn, the RSC turns once again to the work of Shakespeare’s great contemporary Ben Jonson with a rib-tickling production (director Polly Findlay) of The Alchemist.

The play, dating from 1610, once again presents us with a series of characters, well defined in their names, who are all on the make in various ways.

And, as before, the characters they are seeking to exploit are really the ones doing the exploiting.

They handle their victims with a guileful finesse that leaves the audience gasping with admiration.

Fleeing London to escape the Plague, the affable gentleman Lovewit (Hywel Morgan) leaves his Blackfriars residence in the hands of his housekeeper Jeremy (Ken Nwosu). Alas, this factotum is far from being the pillar of rectitude he appears. Under the alias Face, he is part of the three-person crime syndicate determined to fleece the unwary.

Their principal performer is Subtle (Mark Lockyer), the alchemist of the title who claims knowledge of esoteric matters of all sorts, including the secret of the philosopher’s stone which turns base metals into gold.

The principal purchaser of his dubious services – and those of the gang’s third member, the Trollope Doll Common (Siobhan McSweeney) – is the grasping aristocrat Sir Epicure Mammon (Ian Redford).

Jonson gives him a speech of such lavish language in his description of Lucullan luxuries to come that the Swan’s first-night audience was moved to loud applause following its delivery.

Later came gasps from the house as Mr Lockyer’s Subtle – such was the full-on physicality of his performance – seemed to act himself unconscious. The performance was stopped for ten minutes, before he was able to proceed.

The on-going feud between Face and Subtle erupts in rivalry between them for the charms (and money) of flirtatious young widow Dame Pliant (Rosa Robson). Her brother Kastril (Tom McCall), meanwhile keeps us laughing as young buck eager for a quarrel, who is inducted into the den of crime by silly-ass tobacconist Abel Drugger (Richard Leeming).

Until August 6. Box office: 01789 403492,

Christopher Gray 4/5