Saturday 30th April 2016
We weren’t quite sure what to expect from ‘The Buskers Opera’ at the Park Theatre. The idea of an updated version of John Gay’s ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ caught the imagination and we were familiar with the name of Dougal Irvine from the ‘Perfect Pitch’ showcases at the Trafalgar studios back in 2009. When we found out David Burt had joined the cast that was the clincher. We booked.
Not content with updating the original, Irvine has asked some interesting questions of it, and about the role of satire itself. His ‘anti-hero’ is a musician who is very good at satirising the failings of the society all around him, but not very good at taking responsibility in his own life.
No knowledge of the original is needed, as we are treated to a nicely Brechtian rundown of John Gay’s version, then Brecht and Weill’s ‘Threepenny opera’, setting the scene for a twenty-first century reboot set during the 2012 Olympics. It can’t be called the ‘Beggar’s Opera’ because the beggars have been cleared off the streets in preparation for the games, and so the ‘Busker’s opera’ is born. The London Olympics is a clever choice – identifiably modern, yet instantly nostalgic. The Olympics became a magnet both for rampant capitalist greed and angry protest with the occupy movement and their rallying cry ‘We are the 99 percent’. The morally bankrupt establishment is represented by Mr Peachum, a newspaper mogul, and Mr Lockitt, the Mayor of London (any similarity to a certain living person most definitely intended).
Irvine is a writer to watch. He is multi-talented, producing lyrics, book and music. His songs are prolific and cover a whole range of emotion – from the cynical ‘Love Song’, the madcap protest song ‘The tale of the rat’, the catchy ‘Do you want a Baby, Baby’, the sweet ‘Make Believe’ and the rousing ‘Change’. He certainly has a different way of looking at things – it’s not often you go to a musical and hear a song called ‘The Invisible Hand’, a skillful deconstruction of Adam Smith’s economic theory. You can sample some of the songs here and Irvine’s propensity for speaking in rhyme here. What we really liked about this musical was that it genuinely had something to say – rather than try to shoehorn a well-known story into the modern world Irvine wants to ask some serious questions about modern so-called ‘civilisation’. Not everything about the story fits perfectly, but the plot gets us where we want to be, and captures some home truths about the Summer of the Games.
Casting director Charlotte Sutton has done an excellent job finding a group of talented actors, singers and musicians. George Maguire looks the part of the modern Macheath – with just a hint of Russell Brand about him, his carefully manicured scruffiness is a facade for the privileged posh boy underneath. He skillfully walks the fine line between charm and fecklessness, and slowly unpeels the layers of an all-too-familar character to reveal both insecurity and a genuinely surprising glimmer of hope.
Natasha Cottriall literally struts her stuff as Lucy Lockitt – think ‘Legally Blond’ but with attitude. She gives a standout performance of the catchiest song ‘Do you want a baby, Baby?’ and perfectly captures the vacuous shallowness of the poor little rich girl. Lauren Samuels as Polly brings warmth and sweetness as the feisty protester who is a genuine dreamer, rediscovering her artisitic inner self to escape the reality of being daughter of an obscenely rich newspaper magnate. The only character with no real cynicism, she makes us believe she might be able to reform Macheath as she clings to her version of their whirlwind romance in ‘Love Song’ and dreams of a better world in ‘Make Believe’.
John McCrea has a lot of fun as Filch, the childhood sweetheart of Polly, manipulated by her father into impersonating Macheath. His transformation from willing office lackey to grungy musical hero is a delight as he grabs his moment in the limelight. As the two capitalists, David Burt and Simon Kane play up their villainous mischief to the max. David Burt, always in control and frankly irritated by the idiots around him, brings a sinister edge to proceedings as Mr Peachum, whilst Simon Kane has a nice line in buffoonery, including some excellent ‘Dad dancing’, just occasionally bursting into tantalisingly operatic pomposity. Lotte Wakeham directs with clarity and pace, expertly co-ordinating the chaos.
As Dougal Irvine himself has pointed out in an interview, this subject provides an instant challenge to the writer – if you write about the poor and succeed, you risk becoming one of the ‘1%’ on the back of other people’s suffering. What Irvine does bring to the table is an added layer of hope by focusing on the potential of the individual, in the finale ‘Change’. Yes, by Macheath’s own admission it is cheesy, but it does tap into Gandhi’s exhortation to ‘be the change you want to see’. And you can’t get much more sincere than that. A bold ending indeed!