Theatre Review - 'The Beggar's Opera'

Posted by Alexander Hay

John Gay's 1728 work returns to the London stage

Women trouble in The Beggar's Opera

A portrait of a society dominated by money, self-interest and celebrity criminals has been given a spirited new production directed by Lucy Bailey at the Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park. 

Professional thief catchers, Mr and Mrs Peachem, discover their daughter Polly has married infamous highwayman, Captain Macheath, in secret. Worried that Macheath is after Polly’s dowry, Mrs Peachum sees no redemption in the marriage unless they can kill Macheath and reclaim Polly’s inheritance. They devise a plan to murder Macheath for his money, but Polly discovers their plot and sends Macheath away to hide.

Macheath, unable to resist female company, visits a tavern, to which he has invited a selection of his favourite women-of-the-town. He discovers, though, too late that two of these ‘ladies’ Jenny Diver and Suky Tawdry are in cahoots with the Peachums to capture Macheath. 

Consequently Macheath is thrown into Newgate Prison under the watchful eye of the notoriously corrupt jailer Lockit. Lockit has struck a deal with the Peachums to share the reward for Macheath’s arrest and hanging. Furthermore Macheath has also proposed to marry Lockit’s daughter Lucy, breaching his loyalty to both girls. Macheath tries to pacify Lucy by denying any marriage with Polly, however Polly arrives to claim Macheath as her husband.

This work, which combines bawdy humour with dramatic irony, was written as both an attack on Sir Robert Walpole’s corrupt administration and a satire on fashionable London’s obsession with Italian opera. Wisely Lucy Bailey has opted to stage John Gay’s ballad opera in its original period and William Dudley’s atmospheric set is dominated by the image of Tyburn gallows, the nooses and the pillory, with the walls of Newgate prison transformed into carts carrying criminals to their death. Dudley also strongly conveys 18th century London low-life in scenes of bustling taverns and brothels.

Sweet songs conjuring up pictures of turtle doves and flowers sharply contrast with the brutal reality of the landscape and are played on period instruments by The City Waites, adding to the authenticity of the piece.
David Caves’ Macheath captures all the swaggering amorality of the highwayman Macheath, Flora Spencer-Longhurst is appealing as the innocent but feisty heroine Polly Peachum and Beverly Rudd makes a robustly earthy Lucy, her wronged rival. The best performances, though, come from Jasper Britton and Janet Fullerlove as Mr and Mrs Peachum respectively and Phil Daniels as the jailer Lockit.

A bold and rewarding production, then, that provides a truly riotous evening in the theatre.

Runs until July 23

Box office: 0844 826 4242 

 Press: The Corner Shop 0207 494 3665 

By Laurence Green

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Alexander Hay

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