Salisbury Playhouse / touring
Opened 22 January, 2009

“Two acting companies on a convict ship?” queries one character, to which another replies, “They might do The Recruiting Officer.” Thus does Stephen Jeffreys’ rewrite and relocation of The Beggar’s Opera cheekily acknowledge Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker, written for director Max Stafford-Clark at the Royal Court some 20 years ago and likewise dealing with a dramatic production by a cast of criminal transportees. There is, Stafford-Clark acknowledges, something of a second-bite-of-the-cherry air to this enterprise, currently being toured in a co-production by his Out Of Joint company and Sydney Theatre Company.
Jeffreys is less earnest than Wertenbaker, without being less serious. The same general issues arise in both plays: gender, class, sexuality, punishment. However, they feel more glancing on this occasion. This may be partly due to the character of the original work: John Gay’s 1728 ballad opera was a keen satire, and this hybrid piece usually has difficulty changing tone, on those occasions when it wants to, between the play-within-the-play and the events on the ship’s five-month voyage to Australia. No matter is probed too deeply, whether it is convict-director William Vaughan’s homosexuality and past as a “molly”, cast member Amelia Whiting’s seduction of the vicar on board in order to improve her lot at her destination, nor even Grace Madden’s compulsion to arson, which looks as if it may become dramatically significant but is merely a damp squib.
Just as Gay’s work included elements of popular airs, ballads and arias, so Jeffreys adds to those further extracts from, or rewritten versions of, songs ranging from “Stand By Me” and “You’re So Vain” to “I Fought The Law” and his sometime collaborator the late Ian Dury’s “I Wanna Be Straight” (with still more included in the published playscript). Stafford-Clark aims for an air of intimacy slightly at odds with the amphitheatrical Salisbury Playhouse configuration; placing pairs of schoolchildren in two-seater makeshift boxes on either side of the stage makes for amiability but little structural impact. Similarly, the deliberate “poor theatre” aesthetic (scarcely any prop is more intricate than a wire crate), instead of inducing in us the intended Brechtian attitude of questioning engagement, adds to the sensation that it’s a bit of a rollick. Both play and production are intelligent and adept, but there feels to be oddly little at stake.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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