Review: The Buskers Opera, Park Theatre

“The future’s ripe for those who mix
Their artistry with politics”

John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera has already inspired one musical adaptation – Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, a new production thereof opening later this month at the National – and finds another in Dougal Irvine’s The Buskers Opera, receiving its world premiere here at the Park Theatre. And if its timing might be slightly off in that regard, it couldn’t be more bang on the money on the London mayoral election day, featuring as it does, corrupt politicians and ruthless media magnates seeking to advance their agenda on an unsuspecting populace.

Set in the strange potential-filled moment that was the 2012 Olympics, Jeremiah Peachum is said mogul with Mayor Lockitt in his pocket, determined to milk it for all it is worth – the only thing standing in their way is half-social justice warrior, half-street busker Macheath, strutting at the head of protest group The Ninety-Nine Percenters. That said, getting one over the fat cats isn’t always as satisfying as getting one’s leg over and as he plays off his wife Polly against the mayor’s daughter Lucy and a few more besides, a thrill-seeking society is encouraged to make judgement.

With book, music and lyrics all coming from Irvine, there’s a singularity of vision that makes The Buskers Opera rather delightful to behold. Predominantly sung-through in an onslaught of rhyming couplets, the indie-rock-inflected score pushes gently towards a modern form of musical theatre (there’s still a full company number about an ever-growing giant rat) and loses little of the satirical bite of Gay’s source material. George Maguire’s mercurial Macheath glows with quirky and quixotic swagger, as concerned with YouTube hits as solving Team GB’s problems, even trampling right over the very people he ostensibly claims to wants to help.

It’s a strong piece of central casting for this Olivier-winning Sunny Afternoon star but he’s far from the only shining light of director Lotte Wakeham’s assured actor/musician production. Natasha Cottriall’s materialistic Lucy is vividly done and manages the not-inconsiderable feat of stepping into Julie Atherton’s shoes in reclaiming her cabaret staple ‘Do You Want A Baby, Baby?’, a highly amusing characterful number neatly book-ended here by a second act reprise – “when the little blue line says you’re impregnated/I thought to myself man this is well over-rated”. And her rivalry with Lauren Samuels’ sweet and strong Polly is a highlight of the show. 

David Burt glowers malevolently as *cough*Murdoch*cough* Peachum, John McCrea as his functionary Filtch emerges as a real one to watch, and there’s real pleasure in watching ensemble members Maimuna Memon and Giovanna Ryan switch between multiple roles and multiple instruments – the point at which three women are playing guitars feels quietly but firmly powerful in the midst of Anna Kezia Williams’ spare set design. A rather understatedly charming show. 

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Simon Annand

Booking until 4th June


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