One of the first things the narrator says as the play starts is: “We’ve kept some things and changed some things and modernised the plot” and that’s exactly why this production of John Gay’s 1728 ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera fails to deliver. The director of the play, Ricky Dukes has also adapted it and unfortunately it falls between two stools, keeping a lot of Gay’s original language but modernising it with references to airports, guns, watches and even Croydon! And to make it even more current, one of the characters fleetingly wears a Donald Trump mask though I’m not sure why.
The young cast are energetic enough but they never seem to get to grips with this hybrid of the old and the new dialogue and the rhythm of the poetry and the prose. In his programme notes Dukes says “The challenge was to write the material in eight weeks and rehearse in three” and unfortunately this lack of preparation time shows, making the play disjointed and at times a little lethargic, causing a couple of grey-haired, senior citizens in the front row to nod off!
The new songs by Bobby Locke and Chris Drohan are shoe-horned into the action and just aren’t that memorable. Also in the small, in-the- round space of the Jack Studio, there isn’t any room for any musicians so the actors have to sing to a pre-recorded backing track which is a shame. Some of the cast are musicians too so maybe it would have been an idea to have them play as well as sing, dance and act as the cast currently do in the magnificent Ragtime at the Charing Cross Theatre.
The Beggar’s Opera tells the story of the charismatic, lothario Macheath (played with a certain amount of charm by Sherwood Alexander), his nefarious deeds, his immorality, and his dalliances with Polly Peachum (delightfully played by Michaela Bennison) and Lucy Lockit (sturdily played by Elizabeth Hollingshead) both of who think they’re the one Macheath loves. It was written as a satire of Italian opera of the day and also of the upper classes, politicians, poverty and injustice. Whether it was because of the cuts that have been made to the original or the production itself, unfortunately a lot of the satire gets lost in the muddled dialogue, with its overuse of the word “slut” and instantly forgettable songs.
The best part of the evening was the end as Macheath is executed seemingly by electric chair which was represented by the use of a lot of adhesive tape. This meant that as the actors left the stage, they found themselves tripping up as the extremely sticky tape stuck determinedly to their shoes and clothes! However, as the narrator says at the conclusion, even the ending has been changed and we now don’t get Macheath’s reprieve and the celebration of his wedding to Polly which makes for a slightly downbeat end as Macheath “blows out” the one remaining light bulb and the play ends in complete darkness.
The Beggar’s Opera has been re-interpreted many times during the nearly two hundred years since it was first performed, notably by Brecht & Weill in their 1928 “play with music” The Threepenny Opera. I applaud the Lazarus Theatre Company for trying something new with the piece – I just don’t feel that it’s added anything to the on-going history of The Beggar’s Opera. In these weird and troubled times, what is going on in the world of politics is almost impossible to satirise. But there was an opportunity here to add to Gay’s legacy and go for the political jugular – unfortunately the gratuitous use of a Trump mask, is as politician Denis Healey once said, like being savaged by a dead sheep.
Review by Alan Fitter
Bawdy, Bonkers and Bizarre…
Polly Peachum longs for her newly-married husband, the roguish highwayman, Macheath. Their whirlwind romance is derailed by her parents, his lover, the law and the noose.
John Gay’s 1728 musical comedy is set deep within London’s underworld, a frantic, dangerous and lascivious world of highwaymen, hangmen and harlots. This uncompromising exposure of moral and financial corruption comes to the stage with an original score and contemporary staging.
“The Beggar’s Opera is suitable for audience members of the age of 12 and upwards, contains strong language and scenes of very naughty behaviour.” Lazarus is an award-winning Theatre Company, re-imagining and revitalising classic text for a contemporary audience.
Polly Peachum – Michaela Bennison
Lucy Lockit – Elizabeth Hollingshead
Mr. Peachum – David Jay Douglas
Mrs Peachum – Natalie Barker
Lockit – Josie Mills
Macheath – Sherwood Alexander
Filch – Louis Rayneau
Matt of the Mint – Alasdair Melrose
Jenny – Rachel Kelly
Mrs Trapes – Shalana Serafina
Written by John Gay
Adapted and Directed by Ricky Dukes
Designed by Sorcha Corcoran
Lighting Design by Stuart Glover
New Lyrics and Music by Bobby Locke
New Music and Sound Design by Chris Drohan
Musical Direction by Sarah Morrison
Production Graphic Designer – Will Beeston
Dates 8th November – 3rd December, Tuesday – Saturday at 7.45pm
The Jack Studio Theatre
Tickets £15.00, £12.00 (Concessions) £10 (Previews 8th and 9th Nov)
Book tickets at www.brockleyjack.co.uk
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