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Drama students cast their magic

THE ALCHEMIST. Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Harry Younger Hall, Edinburgh. Until August 19.

Actors getting grades for their work on the Fringe might sound like the quality control that punters have long yearned for, but no. The performers in The Alchemist are all from the Master of Drama acting course at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and for one of their modules this year they have to get the sand between their toes once nightly at the Harry Younger Hall in Edinburgh's Canongate.

The sand is from the Sahara, for this alchemist is not Ben Jonson's conman but a mystic from a North African oasis, from the novel by Spaniard Paulo Coelho, here directed by Matthew Lenton.

The story has been adapted for the stage collaboratively by the nine students over a four-week devising and rehearsal period. The tight time-scale was intended to match the commercial reality of the theatre world.

It sounds like a recipe for chaos, but in fact the picaresque novel readily lends itself to this treatment. The story of a young man's search for his "truth" in a journey of self-discovery is very much in the style of Peer Gynt, except that when our hero, after so many learning experiences, is once more united with is Solveig, he leaves her.

The ending is doubly disappointing for, having dutifully followed our hero on his path to enlightenment from his shepherd days in Spain to his wandering through North African civil war and final magical challenge, he somehow disappears from the story. It's hardly surprising, really: this production is all about high-quality acting, and the plot is left to whistle.

The same imperative masters the text, which is remarkable for a series of monologues. Some of these help the story along and some do not, but all of them are purple passages for the actors and you cannot resist the thought that one day soon they will come in handy as audition pieces.

Most of the fireworks come from Dumisani-Swiwe Mbebe, an actor so talented we may have to learn his name. In the two roles of Melchizedek and the alchemist, his personal magnetism, physical and vocal presence almost make the production his personal showcase.

In a more understated style, Joe Morrell has that unmistakable ability to inhabit characters rather than play them and, atypically for this production, there is that modern rarity, a dove-tailed double act from the upright Aidan McCarthy and the downright Ray Schmoll.

Brian Hayward

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