Writer: Carl Grose
Music: Charles Hazlewood
Director: Mike Shepherd
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
John Gay’s 1728 musical immorality tale, The Beggar’s Opera has proved to be a durable piece. Not only is it revived regularly, but it has also inspired variations, the most notable of which is Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. Now Kneehigh has given it a 21st Century twist, perhaps aiming to teach an old dog new tricks.
The show’s sleazy urban underworld setting is a place so devoid of heroes that we are left rooting for a thief, murderer and bigamist, but Dominic Marsh’s Macheath has enough cheeky Jack-the-Lad charm to win us over. Macheath is contracted to kill the city’s mayor, which he does efficiently, dispatching his victim’s dog too, thereby preventing him from being called as a witness. The contract had been issued by the villainous Peachums, played by Martin Hyder and Rina Fatania with more than a hint of mid-year pantomime.
In steps corrupt police officer Lockit (Giles King) on a mission to catch Macheath, encouraged by the duplicity of the Peachums. With bribe money being placed in a suitcase and the canine corpse in another identical one, a mix-up is inevitable. To add further confusion, Macheath has just married the Peachums’ daughter, Polly (Angela Hardie), having already impregnated Lockit’s daughter, Lucy (Beverly Rudd).
Writer Carl Grose keeps the flavour of Gay and works from the same narrative, but the sense of time is vague (only references to ‘phone use suggest that it is much later than 1728.). Charles Hazlewood’s catchy pop/rock songs, many of them sounding as if they would not have been out of place on a Madness album, give the show much of its energy. This is an ensemble production, with the best songs shared around, and there are stand-out performances from Patrycja Kujawska as the mayor’s vengeful widow and Georgia Frost as the Peachums’ lackey, Filch.
Director Mike Shepherd’s production has exuberance and invention, although the second half is decidedly slicker than the first. The musicians are integrated into the action and puppets (including a High Court Judge with a voice like Margaret Thatcher) swell the numbers on stage still further. In one particularly amusing scene, a creche full of puppet babies gang up to terrify their presumed father, Macheath. There is a sense of constant bustle around Michael Vale’s split-level set, seen through Malcom Rippeth’s atmospheric lighting, and the show builds up to a finale of spectacular destruction, in which all the characters get pretty much what they deserve.
Modern day references are disappointingly rare in this update, the show’s kick coming from timeless, rather than contemporary relevance. And so Gay’s classic comes back to entertain new audiences, proving that there is still life in the old dog, in spite of what the show’s title suggests.
Runs until 15 June 2019 | Image: Steve Tanner