Theatre reviews: The Beggar's Opera | The Steamie | La Befana


VANISHING Point's new version of The Beggar's Opera, which opens the Royal Lyceum autumn season in a fierce and groundbreaking co-production with the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, is a show that anyone who cares about the future of theatre would love to love. Bold, messy and often visually stunning, it takes John Gay's 18th century play-with-songs about a gang of underworld thieves and their charismatic, womanising leader, and slams it straight into a dystopian late-21st-century gangster world of stinking, smoky air and fierce social divisions.

What's more, it marshals the resources of 21st century theatre in exactly the way that could, in time, bring our main stages roaring back to life. There's a live band in the shape of sassy, grungy songsters A Band Called Quinn, led by a howlingly sexy Louise Quinn. There's a witty use of live onstage screens and video cameras to capture the way our experience of the world is now constantly mediated, both through television news and surveillance. Kai Fischer's unforgettable design features fabulous state-of-the-art visual images projected through a gaping hole in the roof of the robbers' underground lair, showing skyscapes and cityscapes and comic-strip blown-up images of the story as captured in the pages of celebrity magazines.

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And the whole set-up – including Eve Lambert's amazing costumes, like a cross between extreme haute couture and the bar in Star Wars – seems perfectly poised for some profound comment on the interface between crime, celebrity culture, rampant sexual incontinence, and terminal social breakdown.

But does director Matthew Lenton really know what he wants to do with all these resources, including an impressive cast of eight, led by a magnificently sexy Sandy Grierson as the hero MacHeath? Not to judge by the show's slow decline, over 100 minutes, into something like a styled-up version of a bourgeois sex comedy, in which the audience are invited to spend most of their time sniggering over the spat for MacHeath's affections between pregnant ex Lucy Lockit and gorgeous posh-girl Polly Peachum.

It's not that this unseemly row isn't lifted straight from John Gay's original; it's just that the language in which it's delivered is so flat, crude and jokey, so disconnected from the smoky tones of the music, and so lacking in wider resonances, that this begins to seem like a flashy show that neither makes the audience feel, nor invites them to think.

There's plenty to enjoy here, from the Band's music, to the fierce electricity between the lovely Quinn and Grierson's MacHeath, particularly when they sing together; as a version of The Beggar's Opera, this sometimes looks like a pretty good Don Juan story. But with competitors like Bert Brecht and Kurt Weill in the field, a Beggar's Opera as politically and dramatically lightweight as this finally won't do; and this show remains a tantalising mix of thrilling theatrical achievement, and wasted dramatic opportunity.

There's no question of a lack of political focus in Tony Roper's classic Scottish drama The Steamie, born in 1987 from the Wildcat stable of political music theatre. Set in a Glasgow public wash-house on a New Year's Eve in the early 1950s, the play famously offers a near-perfect snapshot of the lives of four working-class women at the very moment when a new affluence was about to change their lives for ever, both for better and for worse; David Anderson's songs lend political perspective and passion, and a sense of the precise place of these women in social history.

Alison Peebles's new touring production has plenty of positive qualities, including a fine set by Kenny Miller that evokes the civic magnificence of Glasgow as well as the routine landscape of the steamie, and four performances that range from the already excellent – notably Julie Austin's motor-mouthed Catholic housewife, Magrit – to the thoroughly promising.

There's a real problem, though, with the way this production handles the music, which should come across as magnificent stuff, the living force of all the beauty, pride, solidarity, yearning, romance and sheer joy that the women so rarely express in their ordinary lives. Instead, it's often artificially distanced from the audience, or diffused across the stage, or weakened by distracting glitter-ball visual effects; and mostly, it's just badly sung, grating or out of tune. To make the music of this play seem as bad and tacky as many other aspects of these women's lives is a terrible theatrical mistake; and until it's sorted, this hugely promising production will not achieve the impact it should.

There are plenty of luscious musical sounds, though, in this week's Oran Mor lunchtime show La Befana, the second production jointly created by Adrian Wiszniewski and composer Gordon Rigby. Last year's GBH slid unsettlingly from the landscape of contemporary Glasgow into the land of myth and legend; La Befana seems like a fairytale from the outset, as it begins the story of a little red-haired orphan girl who never quite fits in, in the small town where she grows up. Performed by a 15-strong Scottish Philharmonic in superb form, and by an inspired Danielle Stewart as narrator and heroine, the show lasts barely 40 minutes, and never escapes a slightly quaint gothic world of mountains, meadows, villagers and cowbells. But the intensity and quality of the performance – co-directed by that same Dave Anderson who wrote the Steamie songs – is simply unforgettable. And it comes as a sharp reminder that if music theatre is to thrive, in all its emergent forms, then first, above all, the music has to be strong; excellent, beautiful, and true.

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• The Beggar's Opera at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 3 October, and Tramway, Glasgow, 28-31 October. The Steamie at Perth Theatre until 26 September, at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh, 28 September-3 October, and on tour until 21 November. La Befana at Oran Mor until Saturday, 19 September.