Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Review (extended) for The Three Penny Opera Nottingham Playhouse

Video (mainly for sound) for those unable to read this review.

A 400 word review was originally commissioned and published by The Big Issue. This is my updated version.

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's musical masterpiece, The Threepenny Opera, is the forerunner to many modern musical theatre works and originates from John Gay's musical satire, The Beggars' Opera, written in 1728. Peter Rowe of Ipswich's New Wolsey Theatre and Graeae's Jenny Sealey have collaborated to bring an anarchic version of Brecht's theatrical vision to a breadth of regional theatres beginning with Nottingham Playhouse.

Brecht and Weill's original, Die Dreigroschenoper, was conceived in the late 1920's and received great critical acclaim. Despite the chaos of creative uncertainty during its creation and the late entry of the song 'Mack The Knife', it goes on to be performed in theatre spaces throughout the world. As the Weimar Republic came to power, the production exposed the difficulties suffered by the poor and dispossessed. It would be appropriate to say that the paintings and drawings of the artist George Grosz may have great influence in defining the look of the piece in its depiction of cripples and the underworld characters.

The work still has economic and social parallels today and this exciting new, decidedly 'rock and roll' production by Graeae brings the story bang up to date, reflecting current economic problems in the UK through text, vibrant and chilling songs and terrific multi-media projections designed by Mark Haig. Although there is the temptation to find oneself reading all the words along with action the system of live text translation works well and actually enhances the show giving depth to the piece. Likewise, having Jude Mahon on stage by the side of the actors signing rather than at the side of the performing space works well within the piece and her presence is beneficial boarding on vital, rather than merely additional or complementary to the action.

Graeae are a young and vibrant cast enhanced by old hands such as the charismatic Garry Robson playing JJ Peachum the King of the Beggars which harks back to John Gay's Beggars' Opera and in parts it is particularly mock opera as well as pop opera.

This new production design by Neil Murray has a predominantly greasy, underground, neo- expressionist black and grey brick, running blood stained tone and is creatively enhanced with projections and BSL interpretation and captioning. It is set slightly in the future with a new monarch, Charles 111 about to be coroneted. 

Initially, at the beginning of the show, the cast tear down a hanging set of torn and ragged red curtains in the centre of the stage we are introduced to the central character, McHeath, brilliantly played as a louche opportunity seeking and womanising killer by Milton Lopes. The whole cast sing Mack the Knife, a song normally reserved for one female singer. The new lyrics by Jeremy Sams reflect McHeath's misdeeds and are re-interpreted throughout to reflect modern times, events and language. This opens the show fantastically and likewise the powerful ensemble pieces throughout the evening are the electric highlights of this terrific show.

Stand out performances come from Victoria Oruwari as Mrs Peachum, Ci Ci Howells as the wronged daughter Jenny – very powerful vocals and great presence – Will Kenning as an imposing Tiger Brown and Ben Goffe as Jake – terrific tap dancing and comic timing and Sophie Byrne as Dolly, especially strong in the Jealousy duet.

Satire is prevalent throughout the piece with reference to 'happy cripples' always free, always carefree' and within this integrated cast, with some disabled, deaf and blind performers, these references take on a 'voice' of their own and develop an even deeper political and theatrical echo.

The mischievous John Kelly makes a fine and anarchic narrator often deliberately breaking out of character prior to his narrative and engaging the audience between each act with his blunt advice and witty opinions. The audience loved him.

Overall, it is a large cast of actor musicians and all appear to be having great lawless fun telling Brecht and Weill's musical story of corruption exposed and ridiculed and it truly is a show conceived with magnificence and delivered with brilliance.

'Anarchic theatre at its best!' Phil Lowe.

Threepenny Opera is at Nottingham Playhouse until March 8, then New Wolsey Theatre, March 11-22, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, March 27-April 12 and West Yorkshire Playhouse, April 25-May 10. See for full details.

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