Selfish, shallow, womanising, and with manipulative socio-pathic tendencies, John Gay’s early 18th century antihero in his satirical musical, The Beggar’s Opera, was written to symbolise his era’s underbelly.
Yet he remains as relevant and recognisable today, whether city boy hedge-fund player or guitar-toting lothario. We’ve all known a Captain Macheath.
Rory Kinnear seemed an odd choice for the National Theatre’s ‘Mack the Knife’ earlier this year. But he proved darkly funny, and immensely watchable, with a sharp suit, pencil-moustache, to give a sinister turn in its production of The Threepenny Opera
George Maguire channelled Russell Brand instead, with excessive eyeliner and rockstar swagger at the Park Theatre’s even more enjoyable version, The Busker’s Opera.
Lazarus Theatre Company’s The Beggar’s Opera, at the Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley, South London, is the most faithful of the three adaptations (or adaptations of adaptations) of the ballad opera that have been staged this year, albeit in modern dress with new songs by Bobby Locke.
It’s also the shortest, at just 70 or so minutes, and that brevity has robbed the production of some of the political and societal satire that was promised in the programme.
There is also little character development as we wait to find out whether the roguish Macheath can weasel his way out of the noose. The whole thing feels unnecessarily rushed, particularly as the show approaches its climactic final scene.
But as a brisk, high energy, musical The Beggar’s Opera is thoroughly entertaining and striking, given the handful of weeks Lazarus artistic director, Ricky Dukes, and his cast of ten, had to adapt and rehearse it.
Ten actors – including several graduates from the always-impressive Fourth Monkey Theatre Company – avoiding each others’ toes in the Jack’s tight space is no mean feat.
As wanton ‘slut’ and ‘hussy’ Miss Polly Peachum (Michaela Bennison) comes clean to her parents about her impromptu marriage to the dashing and dangerous Captain (Sherwood Alexander), they warn her of the dangers of her decision.
Meanwhile, a pregnant and rather intimidating Lucy Lockit also believes she’s his wife. Elizabeth Hollingshead, who is brand new to this acting lark, has a lovely powerful voice and doesn’t look like she’d put up with Macheath’s crap for a minute.
Can either of them save their outlaw beau from the executioner? And should they actually bother? As Polly’s mother suggests, isn’t widowhood the main perk of marriage when your husband’s a gambling, drinking, cheat?
There is a deliciously catty scene where the women face off, in a verbal duel, with the object of their affections caught up in the melee.
The two dig into their rival’s flaws, oblivious to the fact that it isn’t each other they should be blaming for the triangle. “In love, we are all fools alike,” they say. Indeed.
Natalie Barker, as a world-weary Mrs Peachum, delivers some wonderfully funny and honest lines on the nature of man as she sees right through Macheath’s games.
The cheeky-looking, but quiet, Alexander isn’t given enough lines to get my top lip really snarling with contempt.
But a little growl definitely sneaked out as he declared “what a fool is a fond wench! … I love women with charm and lust… as mistresses not wives” and grinned knowingly through his supposed plea for forgiveness.
The cast makes admirable use of a selection of props which look like they were found in a backstage cupboard a few minutes before the show, with some particularly imaginative adaptations as Macheath is arrested for his crimes.
“Don’t look to us for moral lessons” the ensemble concludes. There’s not much to be learnt from The Beggar’s Opera beyond what us ladies already know (“all men are thieves in love…”) but it’s an extremely enjoyable affirmation that we’re not the only ones daft enough to fall for it.
The Jack Studio Theatre consistently comes out on top as a tiny venue putting on low budget/high quality shows for those of us without the cash or inclination for West End seats. I don’t recall ever leaving disappointed.
The Beggar’s Opera runs until December 3. Lazarus Theatre Company also presents a staged reading of Gay’s sequel, Polly, on November 21.
The Beggars Opera
Lazarus Theatre Company's pared down version of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera is entertaining, brisk & high energy but has lost some of its political and societal satire, and character development.