The Beggar’s Opera (1728) - John Gay’s satirical nod towards London society throws thieves, jailors and women of questionable morals into a love triangle that fluctuates wildly between dark bitter jealously and joyful frivolity. Set in the Open Air Theatre of Regent’s park, amongst the trees and evening sun, this production has all the makings to be a must-see show however, something is lacking.
The plot tells of the roguish highwayman Captain Macheath, who has married the young Polly Peachum in secret whilst also promising to marry the heavily pregnant Lucy Lockit. Both sets of prospective parents-in-law discover his wrong doings and set about capturing this devilish charmer with the intention of sending him to the gallows. It is an episode of eighteenth century ‘Jeremy Kyle’ – “I have two girlfriends and one is pregnant, which should I marry?”
One of the first surprises is the vast number of cast that seems to be required for such an intimate production. This comes as part of an agreement set up with the East 15 Acting School, and whilst it is commendable that they are encouraging new young actors to gain experience there are times where there appear to be more people on stage than in the audience. The company are intriguing, they fully commit to the characters they are playing and you find yourself somewhat distracted by the acting going on in the background rather than focusing on the main ‘action’. It is not unusual to find four or five company members lying pointlessly around the stage whilst the main action is taking off. They say nothing and in most cases slump against the carts or lie on the floor in chains waiting for the scene to end where they merely pick themselves up and leave.
Indeed if the minor characters prove more interesting than the lead roles then this perhaps reflects the issues in this production. The main problem is the lack of rapport between the actors. Both fathers, Mr. Peachum and Mr. Lockit come across in an awkward manner. Neither really interacts believably with the text, often sounding more as though they are reading the lines rather than living them. Polly Peachum is played as a silly young thing, and has a certain delicate air about her. However this childish damsel in distress act soon becomes tiresome and we find ourselves rooting for the more cool and collected Lucy Lockit, aptly played by Beverly Rudd.
What saves the production is the impressive set design. Chained prisoners pull around large tumbrels as the hangman’s noose dangles ominously above them. Scenes change in the blink of an eye as characters dart in, around and through the audience. The set flits from scenes reminiscent of ‘Pirates of the Carribbean’ and ‘The Hobbit” (with thanks to a rather splendid looking barrel that seems to provide us with a never-ending cast of thieves and vagabonds). The character who steals the show is the Turnkey of the jail (played by Frank Scantori) who also drags up to play Mrs Traipes. His facial expressions and comic timing bring a welcome relief and the audience obviously warmed to him as it was his character they were all talking about at the final curtain.
Unfortunately sound problems during the performance meant we often missed out on what characters had to say, particularly at the start of scenes where mic levels had perhaps not been brought up. The singing too left a lot to be desired with many of the voices coming across as weak, given the exception of Beverly Rudd’s ‘Lucy’. Indeed the character ‘Macheath’ failed to impress, even with his lilting Irish tones. His singing voice was dull and unconnected, making us wonder what on earth so many of the female characters found irresistible about him.
This production is not without its charms. Clearly someone has loved and nurtured it, and the care gone into the set and interesting ensemble moments hold the audience attention. That said, it is unlikely to capture the hearts of any other than die-hard fans of the work. It makes for a pleasant evening, but we are left with a feeling that it hasn’t quite reached its potential.
Review by Melissa Phillips