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Posts Tagged ‘John Gay’

I’m not sure how Brecht & Weill even knew about John Gay’s 18th century original, The Beggar’s Opera, but it’s easy to see the attraction of 21st century theatre folk to this piece, which resonated more on Monday night than it ever has with me before – and not just because of Macheath’s comments about returning after the interval, choosing to remain and being united, and the extensive use of the flag of St. George as England was being humiliated elsewhere! This is a radical adaptation by Simon Stephens, edgier and ruder, which I rather liked.

It’s relocated in the East End of London, amongst the underclass and criminal lowlife. Peachum runs a professional begging gang made up of the homeless, veterans, lunatics, alcoholics and druggies. The corrupt police chief Brown was in the army in Afghanistan with Macheath, the rogue the ladies can’t resist, including the police chief’s own daughter Lucy, Peachum’s wife and daughter Polly and prostitute Jenny. A coronation parade is going to visit their ‘manor’ and Macheath has something on the king, whilst Peachum has something on the police chief and Mrs Peachum controls Jenny through drugs. The closing scene of Act I, where relationships and connections are revealed, is superbly staged, including a keystone cops parody, and the final scene of Act II brings out the Valkyrie helmets and the vocals turn more operatic to brilliantly underline the satire of John Gay’s and Brecht & Weill’s originals. It retains the sensibilities of 30’s Berlin through the music, which somehow fits perfectly with the new setting; it has an anarchic, manic quality and it’s superbly played and sung in this production under MD David Shrubsole.

Rory Kinnear has real menace and swagger as Macheath and a surprisingly good voice for someone without much experience in musical theatre. Nick Holder is more seeped in musical theatre and this is one of his best performances, combining just as much menace with a penchant for cross-dressing, in heels and red-streaked wig. Rosalie Craig excels too as a nerdy Polly with a ruthless streak. I loved Peter de Jersey’s very physical dictator-like police chief and Haydn Gwynne’s oily Mrs Peachum. It’s great to see the wonderful Debbie Kurup at the NT in a terrific turn as Lucy. It’s an excellent supporting cast with a stand-out performance from George Ikediashi as the Balladeer. I wasn’t sure about Vicki Mortimer’s rather ramshackle home made look design, though it did provide some great moments, and the costumes were excellent. Rufus Norris staging was outstanding.

Another evening at the NT which exceeded expectations; long may that continue.

 

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John Gay’s The Beggars Opera may be the first ever musical, written almost 300 years ago. Though called an opera, it was actually a satire on opera, set amongst ordinary folk, in stark contrast to opera’s loftier subjects and settings. It’s had many revivals, notably one at the Lyric Hammersmith nearly a century ago that ran for almost 1500 performances, and adaptations, the most famous of which is Brecht & Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. Now Kneehigh have given it a modern setting in our corrupt new world.

The Peachum’s own a pilchard canning business. Mrs Peachum is the power behind the throne and daughter Polly keeps the books. They have a loyal servant, Filch. Mr Peachum hires Macheath to kill the mayor (and his dog!) so that he can take over (via a corrupt election). Much to the Peachum’s horror, Polly falls for, and gets pregnant by, Macheath, who has impregnated quite a few ladies, including Lucy Lockit, the daughter of the police chief (who is also in Peachum’s pay). As Mayor he changes the law so that Macheath can be hung, but things don’t always turn out as planned.

Charles Hazlewood’s new score is a cocktail of many musical styles, from references to Gay’s original to heavy metal and punk! The cast double up as musicians. The setting is a giant metal frame sitting inside the chamber of Shoreditch Town Hall, reminiscent of earlier Kneehigh shows like Don John. It’s good to see some new faces to Kneehigh, particularly Rina Fantina as a terrific Mrs Peachum, the ever wonderful Beverley Rudd as Lucy Lockit and Jack Shaloo as an excellent Filch, jailer and prostitute (very versatile!).

It was inventive and contained many of the Kneehigh trademarks. I thought the first half could do with a bit of tightening, and maybe editing, but overall it was Kneehigh back on form, doing what only they can do.

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John Gay has a lot to answer for. In satirising 18th century opera, he invented the musical as we know it today (and even jukebox musicals, as his was a compilation of popular songs of the day) and it’s content was so controversial, it resulted in the introduction of theatrical censorship which continued for 240 years until just 43 years ago. He also made more money that a lot of contemporary musicals – the equivalent of £1m!

Lucy Bailey’s production for the Open Air Theatre is much darker and bawdier than any I’ve seen before, and somehow feels much more authentic. It’s another show (after Into the Woods and Lord of the Flies) that’s perfect for the venue too. Bill Dudley has created a superb death & torture location with gallows and stocks, brilliant period costumes and a Hogarthian front cloth to take you to the London of the early eighteenth century.

Macheath is a highwayman and womanizer, target of thief catcher Peachum and jailer Lockit, both of whose daughters he has bedded and proposed to (and in Lucy Lockit’s case impregnated). Along the road to his capture we seem to spend most of our time in bars and brothels with a surfeit of thieving, drinking, fighting and fornication. It’s a bit shocking today, so I dread to think what they thought of it 283 years ago!

It’s a great ensemble, expanded to 26 with the addition of students from E 15 Acting School with stand out performances from Jasper Britton and Janet Fullerlove as the Peachums, Oliver Hoare as their servant Filch and Beverly Rudd as both Lucy Lockit and Dolly Trull. They’ve cast singing actors rather than singers, which I think is right for the piece but doesn’t make for the best vocals. The playing of six piece ensemble The City Waites though is first class.  The choreography and fight direction of Maxine Doyle and Terry King is outstanding; you often went ‘ouch’ as you could virtually feel the punches and falls.

Another great night at the Open Air on another great night. Next stop Gershwin’s Crazy for You in a month’s time.

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