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Remember the Barbra Streisand screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc?, with four or five identical valises being endlessly switched and re-switched? I’m sure Carl Grose does. His new version of The Beggar’s Opera includes almost as much luggage-related confusion. One of the items in question contains the titular mutt, which its owner the mayor had been taking for walkies when both were assassinated; “[The dog] was a witness,” explains Macheath (Dominic Marsh) later.
Mac here is less a criminal mastermind in his own right than a villain for hire, in this instance by pilchards-to-concrete mogul Les Peachum, who wants the mayoralty for himself. The remainder of the basic set-up is familiar: chief of police Lockit is under Peachum’s thumb, and the daughters of each are under Macheath’s, er, influence.
As in every other version of the story from John Gay’s original to Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny incarnation, the world is irredeemably corrupt and self-serving. Put it this way: Grose’s most reliable commentator is a Mr Punch puppet that periodically pops up from an old-fashioned Punch & Judy booth.
There is not much room here for the decorous strain of tristesse which has run through many re-tellings of classic tales by the Kneehigh company in recent years. Even the wackiest moments, such as Macheath dropping in for a spot of relaxation at what appears to be an S&M bordello, or his later being menaced by a Cabbage Patch-esque gang of puppet babies he has sired on all the club’s whores, have an inescapable undertow of savagery.
The tone of the material trumps that of the company. Another trait this version has in common with others is that it feels over-protracted, not fatally but just enough to drag a little. Charles Hazlewood’s score, played principally by the cast, takes off from funereal beginnings to embrace rap, disco, hardcore, ska and even dub. However, the ascending musical energy is not sufficient to counteract an absence of narrative cohesion. It is as if the characters are trying to hit several different sets of onstage marks at once, and inevitably things flap about a bit. Credit where it’s due, though: the most vigorous and compelling flapping regularly comes from the expansive, leopardskin-clad figure of Rina Fatania as Mrs Peachum, who is clearly the criminal brains of the household.
How can the tale’s standard ending, with Macheath escaping the gallows to rollick another day, work in this more sombre landscape? In the event, Grose and director Mike Shepherd pull it all together at the last, managing both to pay lip-service to this narrative convention and to engineer a satisfyingly grim conclusion of their own, so cataclysmic that the cast have to quieten the audience down for a minor-key coda. That’s the way to do it.