Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park – The Beggar’s Opera

The Beggar’s Opera
Ballad opera in two acts by John Gay

Mr Peachum – Jasper Britton
Filch – Oliver Hoare
Mrs Peachum – Janet Fullerlove
Polly Peachum – Flora Spencer-Longhurst
Captain Macheath – David Caves
Ben Budge – Jack Bannell
Matt of the Mint – Keith Dunphy
Turnkey / Ned Clincher – Vinicius Salles
Jemmy Twitcher – Rob McNeill
Jenny Diver – Lucie Skeaping
Molly Brazen – Fernanda Prata
Turnkey / Mrs Traipes – Frank Scantori
Mrs Traipes’s Assistant / Mrs Slammekin – Karen Anderson
Suky Tawdry – Akiya Henry
Mr Lockit – Phil Daniels
Lucy Lockit / Dolly Trull – Beverly Rudd

Students from East 15 Acting School
The City Waites
Roddy Skeaping

Lucy Bailey – Director
William Dudley – Designer
Maxine Doyle – Movement Director
Roddy Skeaping – Arranger
Oliver Fenwick – Lighting
Mike Walker – Sound
Terry King – Fight Director

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 28 June, 2011
Venue: Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, London

It’s rare to encounter John Gay’s ‘Newgate Pastoral’ in anything approaching its original guise, but here it is in all its rambunctious, eighteenth-century glory (albeit muscled up with radio microphones and banks of loudspeakers), bringing rich and bawdy entertainment to what the drop-curtain terms “The Open Air Theatre in The Prince Regent’s Newly-Fashioned Pleasure Gardens”. Lucy Bailey is a clever choice to direct this picaresque tale, given her bloodcurdling pedigree in staging gory classics at Shakespeare’s Globe (Titus Andronicus, Macbeth), while the decision to pair her with Maxine Doyle, the savagely brilliant choreographer of Punchdrunk, is inspired. A triumph, then? Sadly not, for the musical side of this production is a squib as damp as the theatre’s folding seats after the thunderstorm.

Imagine a child inflating a balloon, puff after puff, until it expands into his pride and joy: a big, beautiful object of desire. Now imagine the baddie with the needle who sneaks in and punctures it. All that air, all that beauty, vanishes instantly. So it is with this version of The Beggar’s Opera whenever music intrudes on the energetic goings-on, for each time the musicians of The City Waites strike up with their dainty, wholegrain goodness – all Historically Informed Practice and careful tempo choices – they kill the stage energy stone dead. Time after time Bailey’s actors let rip in scenes of kinetic vivacity, only for a foursquare rhythm to tug them back into line.

Vocal prowess is inconsistent across the cast; even, in the case of Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s pretty Polly Peachum, across a single player, as the actress’s sweet soprano alternates with semi-folk and semi-screeched moments in one of the evening’s oddest performances. When David Caves sings, by contrast, he swaps his edgy Northern-Irish brogue for a bland musical-theatre singing voice that saps his Macheath of all the character he has built up through his acting. In fact, very few of the performers grind the bones of the score as hungrily as they chomp their way through the text – and that includes the Mr Peachum of Jasper Britton, a veteran of the RSC-John Caird version some twenty years ago (when he was Ben Budge), and the sardonically enjoyable but vocally undernourished Mr Lockit of Phil Daniels.

Only when Beverly Rudd flounces on as Lucy Lockit does the music pop its stays. This all-or-nothing actress has no truck with musical niceties: she just lets rip and to hell with being HIP. In so doing she probably comes closer to the real thing than anyone else in the cast. As a show-stealer, Rudd is a shameless hussy, a vivacious personality and a huge talent.

The Beggar’s Opera was written (or cobbled together) by John Gay in the 1720s, the first in a short-lived fad for scabrous entertainments based on ballads, songs and snatches. With sixty-nine tunes culled from existing sources it could claim to be the first juke-box musical. Many of the songs are set in opposition to their mood, such as the gentle carol ‘Quelle est cette odeur agréable?’ which is improbably but successfully recast as a foot-stomping drinking song, while other airs appear so fleetingly that they barely register. All the music drives the action forward, which is more than can be said of some modern musicals where everything stops for a song, and Gay discards every tune the moment it has served its dramatic purpose.

This dramatic self-possession extends to the storyline too. Since much of it is what we now think of as ‘Brechtian’, it is ironic (but possibly inevitable) that the great German magpie should have plundered Gay’s play for his own Threepenny Opera. As the action begins, Polly Peachum has married the scoundrel Macheath, much to the displeasure of her parents. Peachum Senior catches the cad in a classic honey-trap and has him locked up in Lockit’s prison where he is prepared for execution. But there are other women in the serial adulterer’s sordid life, and they’re all out for Macheath’s flesh – or at least a pound of it…

Lucy Bailey directs with zest and a relish for depicting mankind’s baser instincts. The sex is vivid if not absolutely full-on; the violence is colourful but not bloody, and the whole experience is a barrel of fun for… well, most of the family (the grown-ups at least). William Dudley’s imaginative set is constructed around two imposing tumbrils, each one suitable for carting away the bodies from Tyburn gibbet. These do service as bed, pub or prison as required, and they are framed by a giant gantry decked with nooses and iron chains, the latter used for a grotesque opening maypole dance. As the show ends (on a blackly funny coup de théâtre inspired by Monty Python’s Life of Brian) it is apparent that the flourishing Open Air Theatre has another hit on its hands. If only the music were a little less Cranks and a little more Angus Steakhouse.

  • Performances until July 23

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