You'd be forgiven for thinking The Alchemist and Volpone were the only surviving Ben Jonson plays, so rarely is anything else of his produced. The Magnetic Lady first appeared in 1632 and incredibly there doesn't seem to be any record of it being staged professionally in the UK since that original production. So you can understand why I'd be tempted by a revival at the White Bear. Director Elizabeth Elstub has set the play in the 1930s, for reasons that I'm not entirely clear on, and made some minor text changes in accordance with this.
The convoluted plot you'd expect from Jonson sees Lady Loadstone trying to marry off her niece, Placentia. Many suitors turn up, thanks to the generous dowry on offer, not realising that the haste in trying to find her a husband has something to do with a mystery illness - which, we later discover, Placentia inflicted on herself, a little under nine months ago. The plot twists into itself and elegantly resolves itself by the end, and while it's unlikely to be reconsidered as one of Jonson's masterpieces, it does seem bizarre that it's been so neglected. The play itself comes out well from this, which is impressive considering the production itself is, unfortunately, woefully under-rehearsed.
It's poorly blocked (a real issue when putting a large cast in a small room) and both halves start with lengthy pauses waiting for the actors to turn up. Lots of lines get forgotten (especially by Michael Bagwell as Compass) and while the production is admirably speedy (two hours with interval) a lot of this comes from some pretty garbled lines. This isn't helped by the 1930s conceit, as Elstub seems to have attempted to get her actors to speak in posh, 1930s "radio" voices, but this mainly consists of them rolling their "R"s, when they remember to do it that is. Maggie Robson is uncomfortably hammy as Lady Loadstone, although doubling as Mother Chair, the latter role is better suited to a broad performance style; the most painful performance though comes from Jonathan Benda as Ironside, who looks utterly bemused at finding himself on stage. Generally the women fare better than the men - I liked Jennifer Shakesby and Juliet Lundholm, while Sharron Byrne gives a nicely natural performance in a small role; Darrie Gardner's Mistress Polish I couldn't quite make up my mind about.
Overall the production feels as if it's overstretched the creatives: The lighting is basic, poorly placed (I had a light straght in my eye most of the time) and the lighting operator was late for a lot of cues; they also ran out of programmes very early on (I'm getting cast/crew info from the website.) If, like me, you're a geek for obscure Elizabethan/Jacobean (or in this case Caroline - Jonson outlived Shakespeare by a couple of decades after all) plays you probably won't want to miss this, but the production itself isn't one I can recommend.
The Magnetic Lady by Ben Jonson is booking until the 25th of September at the White Bear Theatre.