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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Beggar's Opera

What signifies a promise to a woman? — Captain Macheath
The Beggar's Opera
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Polly Peachum and Beverly Rudd as Lucy Lockit (Photo: Alastair Muir)
John Gay's 1728 The Beggar's Opera was written as a satirical take on the vogue of Italian opera which dominated fashionable London theatres at the time. It's not an opera but a ballad musical with lyrics set to popular folk tunes, sweet and well known melodies which would contrast with the low life characters and the raucous language of the gutter. The story centres on two families, the Peachums and the Lockits who made their living out of selling criminals to the law and in selling back to victims of theft some of their stolen possessions.

The play opens with the Peachum's pretty daughter Polly (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) telling her parents Mr Peachum (Jasper Britton) and Mrs Peachum (Janet Fullerlove) that she has married the infamous highwayman, Captain Macheath (the very handsome David Caves). Fearing that Macheath has set his eyes on Polly's dowry, the Peachums plan to murder him. Macheath escapes and meets up with his gang and later goes to a tavern where he entertains some prostitutes, two of whom betray him and he is incarcerated in Newgate Jail. The corrupt jailer is Mr Lockit (Phil Daniels) whose daughter Lucy (Beverly Rudd) is pregnant by Macheath and who hopes he will marry her. Lucy and Polly compete for Macheath, he is recaptured after escaping from Newgate and sentenced to be sent to the gallows. Four more pregnant women plead for Macheath's life. I shall not reveal here whether Macheath swings or whether he escapes or is reprieved.

William Dudley's design is beautiful, turning the stage at the pretty, pastoral Open Air into the seedy back streets of London. An enormous barrel serves to house a room in a tavern and two carts serve, one as a bed from which Macheath will emerge from to sing a love song to Polly, with her unaware there are several other girls in there with him under the covers. The play opens with a traditional maypole dance but instead of ribbons they dance with heavy chains and then some are manacled reminding us of the likelihood of the gallows or transportation to the colonies. From the wooden frame above are reminders of the rope nooses. In the second act the carts are cleverly upturned and become a pair of hanging gallows with two miscreants facing their end.

Lucy Bailey gives us enough of a picture of this precarious, poverty ridden underclass existence to balance the comedy of the piece as girls romp around Macheath in varying states of undress. As Peachum says, "Gangsters and Highwaymen are generally very good to their whores but very devils to their wives." Maxine Doyle behind much of Punchdrunk's choreography is Movement Director with two of Punchdrunk's best, athletic dancers Fernanda Prata as Molly Brazen and Vinicius Salles as Turnley and Ned Clincher guaranteeing authentic looking fights and leaps from the top of the stage.

Beverly Rudd sings beautifully as Lucy Lockit and I liked Jasper Britton's understated villain Peachum. Janet Fullerlove's bawdy Mrs Peachum is a model of vulgarity and her daughter (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) seems quite refined until the magnificent fight between her and Lucy. Folk band The City Waites play the folk airs on authentic instruments.

Lucy Bailey's production is a remarkable recreation of low Hogarthian London and one where you might feel sorry for the girl winning Macheath as her husband, with a nasty sexual disease the likely outcome.

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The Beggar's Opera
Written by John Gay
Directed by Lucy Bailey

Starring: Jasper Britton, David Caves, Janet Fullerlove, Beverly Rudd, Phil Daniels, Flora Spencer-Longhurst
With: Oliver Hoare, Jack Bannell, Keith Dunphy, Vinicius Salles, Fernanda Prata, Rob McNeill, Lucie Skeaping, Frank Scantori, Karen Anderson, Akiya Henry
Movement: Maxine Doyle
Design: William Dudley
Arranger and Musical Director: Roddy Skeaping
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes including an interval
Box Office: 0844 826 4242
Booking to 23rd July 2011
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 28th June 2011 performance at the Open Air Theatre, Inner Circle, Regent's Park, London NW1 4NR (Rail/Tube: Baker Street)

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