The Beggar’s Opera, written by John Gay in 1728, is often described as the first ever musical, 300 years ahead of its time. It’s a ballad opera, which means that Gay took popular folk songs and wound a story around them. It was also radical in its day: its characters are criminals, pimps and prostitutes. It satirises opera (not usually known for its lowlifes) as well as society, highlighting that those in power, the politicians, are just as corrupt as those considered to be the lowest in society.
This modern adaptation by Ian Burton and Robert Carsen uses the same incongruous elements to achieve success. The orchestra’s musicians are dressed as down-and-outs, but their Baroque playing is utterly beautiful. Sadly, not much has changed since 1728 and the themes are still as relevant today: the divide that exists between the rich and the poor, crime, corruption and greed. Despite this, humour dominates, with many sexual innuendos and references to the present day, including Brexit and the recent Royal Wedding.
Before the action starts, the set is on show. Cardboard boxes are artistically stacked from floor to ceiling and an actor lies on the stage in his sleeping bag. Audience members almost certainly passed a few homeless people in a similar situation on the way to the show. Suddenly, there is an outburst of energy as a very loud siren reverberates around the theatre and actors rush from all corners onto the stage. This is the energy that will remain throughout this production. The orchestra take to their seats and Mr Peachum is left onstage alone. His wife, Mrs Peachum, is hysterical. She occasionally sings out of tune, which creates much hilarity. She’s adorned in leopard skin clothes and the pair of them are both conniving and immoral. Their daughter, Polly, is different. Her singing is reminiscent of that in Shakespeare’s pastoral plays and her voice is outstandingly melodic. When she first appears with her husband, Macheath, a notorious highway man who her parents plan to murder to gain his fortune, it’s like a scene from Grease: Polly looks like Olivia Newton-John with her blond hair and sweetness and Macheath, with his biker jacket and good looks, John Travolta. There is a large cast, full of talent.
The choreography is commendable and mesmerising at times. The athleticism and synchronicity are wonderful to watch and even gain separate applause on occasion. This is two hours of full-on drama, music and dance: a privilege to see.