Dougal Irvine’s angry, provocative, agitprop musical, The Buskers Opera could have ended up a polemic on capitalism, consumerism and greed. Instead, this engaging production is one of the most original, refreshing, vibrant and entertaining shows of recent times.
The Buskers Opera, which is based on John Gay’s 1728 work, The Beggar’s Opera, opened on Thursday night at Finsbury’s Park Theatre, is two hours of pure poetry (literally), steeling a march on the National Theatre’s big commercial production of the same story, The Threepenny Opera, by three weeks.
This is theatre at the coalface. It has taken Irvine and his producers five years of re-writes, collaboration and fund-raising before it was ready to open. He met with Cardboard Citizens Theatre, which works with the homeless and marginalised, and they went to theatre fans for crowdfunding, making this very much a project by, for, and about ordinary people.
There’s no fancy set, it’s industrial urban chic (that’s a few scaffolding poles bolted together to construct a mezzanine to you and me), and its cast includes the up-and-coming, the charismatic Olivier Award-winning George Maguire (Sunny Afternoon), West End veteran David Burt and a superb turn by a guy who is a Ghost Bus tour guide on his days off.
Gay provided Irvine with the inspiration but his version is an anarchic, radical and satirical tale set during the 2012 London Olympics.
Urban guerilla, Macheath, attempts to organise a mass protest to disrupt the Games and highlight the fate of the poor who have been dispossessed by the building of the sports village and arenas.
It was a very real issue that saw the streets sanitised and its homeless driven out of the capital, by the coachload, so that London could stage the global showpiece fixture.
But Macheath, for all his good intentions, isn’t entirely the subversive man of the people he claims to be. In fact he’s a bit of a cliché. And his followers are not the capital’s underclass, trying to highlight their plight, but the public school educated darlings of the rich and privileged, sticking it to The Man (and their parents) by jumping on the latest fashionable bandwagon.
Our Jack-the-Lad Pied Piper, armed with his patched up guitar, has freebies from a Soho brothel and gets one upper class bit of totty knocked up while taking another down the aisle – to the fury of their fathers – the mayor of London and an Alan Sugar-style media magnate.
This loveable rogue, played full of charm by George Maguire (sporting a rather fetching man-bun and face paint), finds himself in hot water with the ladies and their dads.
The robust and serious message of The Buskers Opera is wrapped around some superbly darkly comic performances, clever and well-written dialogue told entirely in rhyme, and a tremendous song list that features a bit of rap, some super ensemble production numbers and knockout solo turns by the renegade busker, Maguire.
Natasha Cottriall as the mayor’s daughter, Lucy Lockitt, gives a show-stopping turn with Do You Want A Baby, Baby? after confronting the rampant Macheath and revealing news of the pregnancy. He is horrified at the results of their drunken one-night shag and she is appalled to find the scrounger is married.
Simon Kane’s wonderfully shambolic mayor, a sort of red-headed Boris, and David Burt as the cutthroat media boss, make a winning, if unlikely double-act, as the villains of the show.
The pair plot and connive throughout to thwart Macheath with one offering the revolutionary the ultimate temptation.
I loved every minute of this wonderfully conceived musical although it is disappointing that it wasn’t ready for the Olympics, when it’s political message would have made more of an impact.
The Buskers Opera runs until June 4.
The Buskers Opera
Dougal Irvine’s angry, provocative, agitprop musical, The Buskers Opera is one of the most original, refreshing, vibrant and entertaining shows of recent times.