Francis Beckett enjoys the songs and laughs in this update of John Gay's eighteenth century classic but finds it lacking in new insight and political teeth.
The Busker’s Opera
By Dougal Irvine
The Gang's All Here
The delightful Park Theatre, a mere three years' old and just a stone’s throw from Finsbury Park station, boasts a decent bar selling good, simple food at reasonable prices and an eclectic artistic policy.
It's now offering a lively, brave, enjoyable, radical show that bounces round the theatre with energy and aplomb - and doesn’t quite work.
It doesn’t quite work – let’s get the negative stuff over and done with – for several reasons:
First, it wants to tell a very political tale of modern London, but nails itself to the story and characters of The Beggar’s Opera in a way which is not a good fit.
Second, the characters are not strong enough for us to care what happens to them. It should be a shock when a character dies, but it isn’t.
And third, its radicalism is of the declamatory kind. It tells us for example that newspaper proprietors like Rupert Murdoch lie to the people, that government cuts are cruel and greedy and will kill poor people. And the trouble is that either, like me, you agree already, in which case there is no added value; or you don’t agree, and not a lot is done to persuade you.
Along the way it offers some sharp political one-liners like “Speech is free but only the rich get a listen” and a lovely couplet: “We pay no attention to corporate crimes/ So long as they make their delivery times.” But they tell; they don’t show.
And yet I had a nice evening. The direction of Lotte Wakeham, after a slightly slow and portentous start, bounces along, the show always giving us something interesting and lively to look at and listen to.
The songs are great fun in a Gilbert and Sullivan manner. The whole thing is written in rhyming couplets, a very hard trick to bring off, but that works.
There are some wonderful comic moments like the radical seminar where someone says that a handshake is a racist slur because it represents imperialist manners. Plus there are some laugh out loud lines, many of them terribly politically incorrect, like this couplet:
“When I am blue, when I am sad, I photograph my tits/ They’ve been on line for quite some time, with only twenty hits.”
And the acting and singing are glorious. There isn’t a weak link in the large cast. The best of them, for me, was the marvellous Natasha Cottriall, a young actor of whom I hope we will hear much more. Her Lucy Lockitt was a hard-hearted charmer, making a surprising song near the finale, I’m Going to Have a Baby, both comic and heartrending at the same time.
Next in line is John McCrea’s Filtch, especially when pretending to be Macheath. He made a spectacularly good job of a very hard trick to pull off: An actor playing someone acting a part who has to be convincing, but not too convincing.
There were other fine performances: celebrated veteran David Burt oiled about enjoyably as a sort of Rupert Murdoch figure; meanwhile Lauren Samuels made an engaging ingénue of Polly Peachum; and George Maguire entertained as a hairy, hyperactive Macheath.
Simon Kane, fun to watch, played Mayor Lockitt as Boris Johnson, but a radical show ought to know better than to let Boris Johnson get away as just an engaging twit. How much harm must a mayor do before we find him out?
Altogether a gently entertaining evening, but one that failed to convince or persuade, which is why it only gets an amber light.