Writer: Glyn Maxwell
Director: Alex Clifton
Reviewer: Clare Boswell
The opening of Chester’s new Storyhouse theatre has certainly been eagerly awaited. Deprived of the Gateway Theatre for over a decade, the city has been screaming out for a replacement. Chester hasn’t been devoid of cultural offerings, with fantastic work from both Theatre in the Quarter and Grosvenor Park open air theatre over the years, but it was undeniably very exciting to walk into the impressive art-deco building on Friday evening.
Once one is suitably wowed by the theatre’s facilities (a library in-built within the bar and restaurant being particularly popular among fellow Cestrians) the next big challenge for Storyhouse is to ensure that the quality of the theatre’s opening season matches its beautiful surroundings.
Artistic Director Alex Clifton’s decision to open with Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera is a bold choice and one which, for the most part, works very well. Glyn Maxwell’s new version feels fresh and exciting and juxtaposes nicely with the traditional 18th-century costumes and set design. He has also successfully transferred Gay’s gallows humour into his adaptation, and both Maxwell and Clifton pull no punches in ensuring that the piece feels suitably dark and disconcerting. Glyn Maxwell has taken the decision to relocate Peachum’s business from London to Chester, which generally works well.
There is an abundance of northern accents on display in this production, which for a newly opened regional theatre is important and commendable. However, the scattering of references to Chester landmarks within the dialogue is less successful and gives the piece a slightly more amateur feel, which is disappointing given that the rest of the script and the production elements are of such high quality. Maxwell’s re-working of the original ending will also undeniably evoke different reactions. An appeal to the audience as the characters’ imagined future felt somewhat awkward and wasn’t particularly in keeping with the overarching style of the piece.
Clifton’s well-paced and innovative direction is complemented wonderfully by Jess Curtis’s baroque set design and Rob Halliday’s stylish lighting, which makes full use of the depth of the theatre’s thrust stage and successfully creates the underlying horror of the play. However, it is Harry Blake’s astounding musical composition which raises this production to another level. The music is modern and exciting, so much so that the audience rarely notice that iconic songs such as ‘Mack the Knife’ are completely omitted. The presence of an on-stage band, interacting with both the actors and audience, is a charming addition by Clifton and works nicely with the provocative and sexy feel of the production.
The musical numbers are lustily delivered by the cast and Alex Mugnaioni is mesmerising as protagonist Macheath, carrying his dubious promises and debauchery with a swaggering vitality and just the right amount of vulnerability. Daniel Goode (who turned in an outstanding performance as Falstaff in Merry Wives of Windsor at Grosvernor Park two years ago), is commandingly unpleasant as Mr Peachum and his relationship with his daughter Polly (played with charm by Charlotte Miranda-Smith) makes for some particularly uncomfortable viewing moments. The hilariously staged cat-fight between Polly and Lucy (Nancy Sullivan) is electric and showcases the casts assurance and skill with the more ‘choreographed’ set pieces of the production.
Clifton and his team are to be commended on what is an excellent start to the Storyhouse opening season. Even though not all decisions completely work, this is undoubtedly a bold and exciting adaptation of Gay’s classic. It would have been all too easy to play it safe with the theatre’s first production and it was heartening to see that this is clearly a company that is willing to take risks and push the theatrical boundaries.
Runs in Rep until 19 August | Image: Contributed