Review: The Beggar's Opera Royal Lyceum

The Beggar's Opera *Royal Lyceum

BIG in scope, bold in its interpretation and brilliant in its design – the serious question hanging over this Beggar's Opera is how the Vanishing Point theatre company managed to turn it into such a bowfin' howler.

Director Matthew Lenton and his cast have kept John Gay's original plot, first produced in 1728, about a highwayman called MacHeath whose honourable attitude to his fellow lowlifes becomes compromised by his womanising. But they have thrust it into a vicious, science-fiction future.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Instead of being narrated by a beggar there is bitchy newscaster Sandra Sanderson, who has obvious feelings for superstar thief, MacHeath. The plot is helped along with Japanese Anim-style graphics and moving projections, while the 18th century tunes have been replaced with an electro-pop band.

All of which, one major travesty apart, works very well indeed.

The thieves steal retro designer clothes in audacious raids, which are reported with breathy longing by Sanderson. Their fence, Peachum, and his wife have their fingers in both the underworld in which the whole production is set and the over-world – glimpsed through a giant hole in the roof of the stage.

The single set, a great pile of sand centre stage surrounded by the band in menacing gas masks and crash-helmets, works equally well for the thieves' layer, the fence's shop where MacHeath reveals he has married Peachum's daughter Polly, the bordello where he is betrayed and the prison where he is locked up.

The failure is the music. Instead of crashing, grungy metal suitable for an underworld it is twiddly art-school pop with distinct over-world pretensions, not to mention a singer who looks like a Little Miss Sexy, if Roger Hargreaves' Mr Men franchise were to come up with one.

Worst of all, and knowing full well the risk of sounding like a dad, you can't hear the words. Which is fine in the pop charts. But when the lyrics carry the whole narrative – with the cast parading around in some kind of slow-motion dumb-show – you have to be able to make them out.

Almost equally atrocious are the lines the poor actors have to utter.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Swearing and obscenities can work if there is some kind of rhythm involved. In this context they might as well have been monosyllabic grunts. It's over half an hour before anything like characterisation comes into view.

The production does have its moments. Sandy Grierson's MacHeath is strong, while the prison scene with Victoria Bavister's strangely muted Polly Peachum fighting over him with Elspeth Brodie's excellent Lucy Lockit shows a glimpse of what might have been.

Which just makes the tired, emotionless, thin material around it seem all the worse.

Run ends October 3