The Beggar’s Opera Review

Brockley Jack Studio Theatre 8th November – 3rd December.  Reviewed by Claire Roderick

Lazarus Theatre Company returns to The Jack Studio Theatre with a new version of John Gay’s 1728 satire. With new lyrics and music by Bobby Locke and Chris Drohan, but with large chunks of Gay’s original text, this version (“We’ve kept some things and changed some things and modernised the plot”) Macheath tells us falls somewhere between The Threepenny Opera and Dougal Irvine’s The Busker’s Opera in tone.

Polly Peachum has fallen for, and married, the highwayman Macheath – a fast-talking, manipulative, but charming opportunist – and her parents aren’t happy. They conspire with Macheath’s bitter ex-mistress to have him captured and sent to Newgate Jail for execution. In Newgate, Macheath’s bribery of the jailer, Lockit, fails to work, and he persuades her daughter Lucy to free him so they can marry, but Macheath soon recaptured to meet his fate.

Yes – all that. In one act, 90 minutes. The hectic pace means that prior knowledge of the original plot is helpful, but the show has great moments, even if you’re not too sure what exactly is going on.

The corrupt and self-serving establishment keeping the poor and dispossessed in their place that Gay wrote about don’t need that much modernisation, although a Trump mask does appear at one point just to make sure we get that. The handkerchiefs and snuffboxes that Filch filches for Peachum become documents and baggies of suspicious white powder, but Dukes wisely doesn’t try to modernise too much. The set is minimal, with the cast moving around ladders, tables and chairs to define areas, and using rolls of sticky tape to mark the prison cell and manacle Macheath. The sticky tape is used to shocking effect in the final scene, but the logistics were a little tricky, with a few mishaps and falling props on the night I attended. Although I am sure these will be ironed out throughout the run.

The music and choreography are energetic and spiky, fitting the mood of the production perfectly. This is the first musical production I’ve seen by Lazarus, and, because of the inclusion of choreographed numbers, the actual acting and dialogue, although stylised, seems calmer and stiller. The only people moving around the stage are the actors in the scene, rather than the distracting parades that the company has used in earlier productions.

The committed cast give their all, with Michaela Bennison and Elizabeth Hollingshead as Polly and Lucy giving standout performances as Macheath’s women, strong both in their softer vulnerable moments and their bitchy confrontation number. Sherwood Alexander’s Macheath is best when reacting to the other characters, with wonderful facial expressions and physical comedy. Mr and Mrs Peachum, while both fantastic, seem to be appearing in a different play to the rest of the cast. Their delivery is completely unlike the rest of the cast, and while this may be intentional to signal their difference (like their orange colour scheme), it doesn’t feel coherent. Although I LOVED Natalie Barker’s Hyacinth Bucket-like portrayal as she spat insults at poor Polly, as well as metal-helmeted Josie Mills as Lockit, using her megaphone to great effect.

Considering that the cast have only had three weeks of rehearsals, the result is phenomenal. Full of life, energy and dark humour. Not quite the polished and finished article, but a promising and exciting start to the life of the show.