“You will always be a vulgar slut”
The Beggar’s Opera written by John Gay in 1728 was the first example of the ballad opera, perhaps the forerunner to today’s jukebox musicals in folding in pre-existing tunes to a satirical narrative that poked fun at the ever-popular Italian operas that were all the rage. Gay set his play in amongst the lowlifes of society, our main protagonist Macheath is a highwayman and raging lothario and the slowly twisting plot follows his shenanigans as he gets married to Polly Peachum, despite having gotten Lucy Lockit pregnant, unaware that the parents of both are part of a corrupt justice system that would happily see him hang so that his reputed fortune would come to them. Lucy Bailey directs this production which takes place in the elegant Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park.
The overall impact is somewhat underwhelming though, the score not really proving to be melodically distinct enough, nor the story witty or moving enough to really crackle with life. For 2 hours 40 minutes, there is very little to the plot and much of the running time is taken over by the 69 songs that are sung throughout the show. Though mostly sung well, these rarely progress the action but rather arrest the flow and as the vast majority of them fall neatly into the English folk ballad category, there’s a gnawing sense of repetition that sets in. And even when there is no singing, there’s little vibrancy or energy on stage, movement director Maxine Doyle of Punchdrunk has introduced a rather sluggish pace and Bailey’s direction does not draw out enough of the comedy from the productions or her performers.
There are moments that flare up when everything comes together beautifully, usually involving the excellent Beverly Rudd as one of Macheath’s wives and Phil Daniels as her corrupt jailer of a father. Rudd’s characterful, vivacious performance lights up the stage and her verbal and musical sparring with rival Polly probably the best section of the show. And Daniels’ oily jailer is good fun, especially when faced against Jasper Britton’s manipulative Peachum, who in turn sparks off well against Janet Fullerlove as his wife in the overextended first scene.
The frequently bare-chested David Caves sounds good as the randy Macheath as does Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Polly, but theirs is not a story, certainly not a love story, that we really invest in and so as we career towards the ending as the ever-present threat of the gallows becomes a reality, it is not abundantly clear where our sympathies should lie. And the way in which that ending is played, though it may amuse some, comes from way left field and does not feel at all earned leaving a strangely inconsequential final taste in the mouth.
William Dudley’s design is striking, a large gallows framing two multi-purpose carts which effectively serve as a whole range of locations; the City Waites provide strong musical accompaniment on a range of period instruments with names like theorbo, cittern and curtal and there’s clearly a lot of historical interest to this piece – I highly recommend getting a programme as it is stuffed full of the context in which it was written, the connections to real-life figures and the expectations of the audience for whom Gay was writing. But times move on and though this is never less than proficient, I’m not sure the entertainment value always matches up to the historical value.