Book and Lyrics: Bertolt Brecht
Music: Kurt Weill and Elizabeth Hauptmann
Director: David Thacker
Reviewer: Harriet Mallion
Adapted from John Gay’s 18th-century ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera, Bertolt Brecht’s iconic play The Threepenny Opera traditionally offers a socialist critique to a struggling world. The latest production from The Octagon transforms the dominant themes of poverty and corruption into a modern day setting which feels incredibly pertinent in today’s society.
David Thacker’s modern retelling of The Threepenny Opera imagines a near future where the whole of Britain is awaiting the coronation of Charles III. From the very start, the audience is teased with an array of alarmingly plausible and topical headlines running across a scrolling message board. The auditorium of The Octagon has been transformed into a rough, graffitied and industrial interior based in central London.
The Threepenny Opera follows a cast of unsavoury characters; corrupt officials, chancers, beggars, and prostitutes come together to play their part in the tale of notorious criminal Macheath (David Birrell). Macheath’s tangled love affair with Polly Peachum (Anna Wheatley) incites her father Jonathan Jerimiah Peachum (Eric Potts) to bring him to justice despite the best efforts of the crooked police chief Tiger Brown (Robert Jackson).
The cast is made up of a range of extremely talented vocalists and musicians. Jenny (Martina Isibor), Lucy (Ruby Ablett) and Macheath’s gang switch flawlessly between their roles as key characters and providing musical accompaniment. This is aided by the use of an orchestra mezzanine rather than a pit, which is a key component of the bleak, yet versatile set.
Despite The Threepenny Opera’s dark and oppressive themes there is a lighter, more humorous undercurrent to the production. It is in the comedic characteristics that the women in Macheath’s life steal the show. Polly and Lucy’s Jealousy Duet blends elements of the traditional song with thoroughly modernised lyrics and a lot of light-hearted profanity. Both characters pout and flirt beautifully, competing for attention throughout the production while Birrell’s exasperated Macheath only wants to save himself from the electric chair.
The talented cast feed off each other, injecting comedy and caricature into the production. Potts and Sue Devaney (Celia Peachum) present a hilarious Peachum family dynamic, rich with schemes and plots that are reinforced by their satirical and sarcastic character representations. The pair bicker and gloat sickeningly whilst the action of the production unfolds. Their gleeful manipulation is supported by rich vocals throughout and contrasted by a cast of more heart-warming characters like Martina Isibor’s abused and troubled Jenny, and Robert Jackson’s sexually-confused Tiger Brown.
At times the production suffers acoustically, vocals are overpowered by the live music. This is particularly evident during the finale, where the lyrics became indecipherable and sadly lost their intended impact. It feels as though the production would benefit from a larger venue.
By setting this modern retelling of The Threepenny Opera in the not-so-distant-future David Thacker draws some intriguing parallels between politicians and power-hungry racketeers. Despite the 89 years that lie between The Threepenny Opera’s debut and society today, the production still strikes an alarmingly accurate chord on the plight of poverty and whether the right help is being given to those that need it.
Runs until 4th November 2017 | Image: Richard Davenport
Rating [****] Well worth your pennies