THE BEGGAR'S OPERA
Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London NW1
Opened 28 June, 2011
***

Artistic director Timothy Sheader enjoys programming work in Regent’s Park which is not merely adventurous but seems intended to test how incongruous things can get before imploding. Earlier this summer, audiences entered the sylvan setting to see a crashed jet airliner, the set for Lord Of The Flies; this time, painted forecloths are torn down to reveal a stage dominated by the enormous gibbet of Tyburn. William Dudley’s design is entirely Tyburnesque: one of a pair of gigantic tumbrels is first seen as the bed in which Macheath and Polly Peachum lie entwined, and later transforms into one wall of the cell in which the bandit lord is imprisoned.
    
A sense of period vigour pervades Lucy Bailey’s production. Far from modishly updating some or all of the nearly 70 tunes in John Gay’s 1728 ballad opera , musical director Roddy Skeaping has arranged them for 18th-century instrumentation, as played by his ensemble the City Waites. This was intended by Gay to be the antithesis of Italianate grand opera and so, whilst there are some sweet voices to be heard (principally Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Polly), there are more which make up in energy what they lack in dextrousness around the archaic melodic progressions. Jasper Britton relishes bellowing his lines as Peachum and imbues his songs with the same spirit; after the interval, when Phil Daniels enters and basically Phil Danielses as the gaoler Lockit, one half-expects his numbers to be punctuated with an occasional cry of “Parklife!”
    
The more populous scenes seethe with a Hogarthian grotesque vitality; Terry King has choreographed some nifty brawls among the male and female underworld groups, and also a first-rate catfight as Lucky Lockit and Polly Peachum vie for Macheath’s affections. When a (non-production) bat wheels overhead, it seems entirely in keeping with the tone of the piece; likewise when that gallows is finally pressed into use for a closing celebratory dance that threatens to become a hemp fandango as, one by one, several of the company are dragged off the forestage and strung up. Their work at Shakespeare’s Globe has shown that Bailey and Dudley are unafraid to tackle open-air spaces head-on with audaciously tone-changing visual concepts, and once again their chutzpah pays off with this fine if unexpected slice of Regent’s Parklife.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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