views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Beggar's Opera
Jack Studio Theatre
12th November 2016


The ensemble

Photography © Adam Trigg

Now, there are plenty of things us girls can do to really upset our parents, but getting hitched usually isn't top of the list. Wedlock isn't the problem, it's all the things that happen out of it. Not so in John Gay's 18th-century The Beggar's Opera, in which Mr Peachum (David Jay Douglas) and his wife Mrs Peachum (Natalie Barker) are absolutely distraught when they find out that their daughter Polly (Michaela Bennison) has fallen for Macheath (Sherwood Alexander) and he's put a ring on it. The cad. It turns out though that they might well have a point, with Polly not the only smitten kitten and Lucy Lockit (Elizabeth Hollingshead) also convinced that she's Macheath's one true love. It's all very complicated (isn't love always?), but with a 90-minute running time, director Ricky Dukes has pared down the original text to a simple love story with just a few twists.

At the centre of it all, Alexander puts in one of the production's strongest performances. His undeniable chemistry with Bennison makes for some endearing scenes and we can see how he has charmed his way into her bed (not to mention the pants off most of London's women). He also allows the mercurial womanising side of Macheath to shine through: the scene in the prison when Polly and Lucy first meet is a particular highlight, with Macheath frantically trying to convince both women that he only has feelings for them.

Reacting against the perceived excesses of the Conservative Whig government, the original play was a biting political satire, begging for a return to liberalism. Macheath and his gang of thieves were a satirical take on Robert Walpole and his cabinet and the satirists of the day had no end of fun referencing the similarities, one of the reasons for the play's enduring popularity. There are some fun nods to modern day politics: we couldn't help but smile wryly when Peachum's usual trade in stolen hankerchiefs was transformed into dealing with stolen government files. And there is a fleeting Trump reference to boot - getting in there before the cast of Hamilton.

Whilst The Beggar's Opera is an enjoyable enough offering, it doesn't quite hit the mark in the same way as their previous roaring success The Hatpin. We've been all been waiting since 2012 for something else from Lazarus with songs in it and whilst the original lyrics and music by Bobby Locke are pleasant and do anchor the show in the present day as they should, they fail to linger afterwards. Entertaining in the moment, yet not that memorable. It doesn't help that the accompaniment is pre-recorded, inevitably the result of Dukes using the stage to its fullest and running out of space to stick an orchestra somewhere. Although staging The Beggar's Opera in the round is wonderful, at the very least, a solitary piano somewhere would increase the emotional impact of the new compositions.

The direction is solid; remarkably restrained with only a few scenes that truly betray Dukes' involvement. Macheath's downfall is staged brilliantly with a veritable assault on sight, sound and smell (excellent call on the gunpowder) and the balance between the old text and the new modern setting is spot on. The choreography is impressive, yet there are few other hints of Dukes' signature style. Sorcha Corcoran's minimalist staging with geometric lines, ladders and linked colours look good, but we've seen more visually gripping work from this company.

The Beggar's Opera makes for a perfectly charming evening out. Seen in the context of Lazarus's usual truly spectacular work and the cutting edge satire of the original, we do find ourselves greedily asking for more than just charming, however those unfamiliar with Gay's work will find this a rare treat.

The Beggar's Opera opened on 8th November and runs until 3rd December 2016 at the Jack Studio Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Crofton Park (National Rail)

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