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There have been countless productions and adaptations of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera since it was first performed in 1728, the most famous of which was Brecht & Weil’s The Threepenny Opera exactly two-hundred years later in 1928. It wasn’t an opera, but a musical satire on opera, and it is believed to be the first musical. Only last year Kneehigh gave us their take on it, Dead Dog in a Suitcase (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/dead-dog-in-a-suitcase-and-other-love-songs). Sixteen years ago it was adapted as The Villain’s Opera at the National, which did a great production of the original in the 80’s. Out Of Joint did a version called The Convict’s Opera seven years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2009/03/22/the-convicts-opera). The RSC did it in the 90’s. The Open Air Theatre did it five years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/07/05/the-beggars-opera). Now Dougal Irvine gives us his own modern take, set in London during the 2012 Olympics. Though I don’t share his cynical view of The Games, I did like his adaptation and I think its the best of the modern ones.

He starts by putting it in the context of the Gay original and Brecht & Weill’s adaptation in an opening explanatory scene, which helps an audience new to it. Macheath is the busker, wannabe rock star and former talent show contestant. He marries Polly Peachum, daughter of a newspaper baron, and impregnates Lucy Lockit, design goods obsessed daughter of the London Mayor, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the outdoing buffoon. Peachum’s sidekick Macheath and Polly are part of a protest group called 99%, intent on disrupting The Games and exposing London’s oppression of its underclass. It’s a clever adaptation, all in rhyming couplets, with a higher body count than I remember from other productions and adaptations.

One of its great strengths is the quality of Irvine’s music; he really does know how to write a good tune. He also writes sharp satirical, witty lyrics, though I did wonder if a book writer might have helped to give the show more shape. It’s other strength is in the casting. George Maguire, pretty much direct from his Olivier winning performance as Dave Davies in Sunny Afternoon, is perfectly cast as Macheath, with great charisma and swagger. Simon Kane’s Boris inspired Mayor is a hoot, aided by seeing it on the eve of the London Mayoral election. They are very lucky to have someone of the calibre and experience of David Burt, who delivers a rather sinister Peachum (he was Peachum in The Villain’s Opera and Macheath in the RSC’s production!). Lauren Samuels, herself direct from her superb performance in Bend It Like Beckham, is a sweet but feisty Polly and recent Mountview graduate Natasha Lockitt is in terrific vocal form as Lucy.

I felt Lotte Wakeham’s production was a bit rough at the edges, but I liked its chutzpah and edginess and would certainly recommend it. Next up is the National’s revival of The Threepenny Opera, newly adapted by Simon Stephens, later in the month; if only Gay knew what he’d started……

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