Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***

Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs)

Lyric Hammersmith, 22nd May 2019

Never seen John Gay’s ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, though have seen Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, on which it is based, a couple of times. Have been waiting patiently for a production of Britten’s 1948 adaptation to pop up again having missed a couple of past opportunities. So it seemed a good idea in the meantime to take in this version, co-produced by Kneehigh and the Liverpool Everyman/Playhouse in which writer Carl Grose, composer Charles Hazlewood and director Mike Shepherd have reimagined the story for a contemporary audience using an eclectic mix of musical genres.

And, by and large, it was a good idea, even if it was a little overstuffed with Kneehiggh’s usual bag of tricks. The John Gay original was written as an antidote to the ever more preposterous gods, monsters and love story Baroque Italian style operas filling London theatres. Often cobbled together from other works with divas insisting on their own favourite arias regardless of context, rambling on for hours and with daft plots, they were ripe for satire. Remember too that the early C18 was a golden age for political satire led by Hogarth, Swift and Pope in print. (In fact it was the latter two who first suggested the idea of TBO to Gay). C18 toff Britain was busy racking up debt, sticking it too Johnny Foreigner and getting rich on the proceeds of slavery, whilst all around absolute poverty was rife. Sound familiar?

Gay and the other writers of so called Augustan drama were also pushing back against the Restoration comedies and nasty she-tragedies of the previous decades, creating middle and lower class characters mired in a world of corruption. The aim was not necessarily to highlight the social and economic injustice meted out to the poor, there was still a strong Christian and moral tone of instruction to the works, but to vent the frustration of the mercantile “libertarian” class at the “conservative” aristocracy and its political sycophants. Gay’s particular target in The Beggar’s Opera was actually the divisive Whig prime minister Robert Walpole and specifically his involvement in bailing out the original investors in the South Sea Bubble.

The 69 songs, across 45 short scenes, originally were to be sung without musical accompaniment but Johann Christoph Pepusch was brought in at the last minute to create a score for the mix of largely Scottish and French folk melodies, chucking in popular broadsheet ballads, opera arias lifted straight from the like of Handel, church hymns and even an overture. The punters lapped it up and it spawned multiple imitations, (though this is the only ballad opera which is still performed), and influenced much of the comic opera and musical theatre which followed in the C19 and C20. I see that it enjoyed a lengthy revival at this very theatre in the 1920s.

Carl Grose has kept most of the main characters, the Peachums (Martin Hyder and Rina Fatania), daughter Polly (Angela Hardie), Lockit (Giles King) and daughter Lucy (Beverly Rudd), Filch (Georgia Frost) and, of course Macheath (Dominic Marsh), and the bones of the plot including a repurposed, and instructive, parody ending, though here Macheath is a contract killer tasked with bumping off the virtuous Mayor, (and his innocent mutt), to make way for Peachum. Charles Hazlewood has thrown in electro, grime, dubstep, noire, trip hop rhythms as well as some punk and ska, alongside snatches of Purcell, Handel and even Greensleeves (from the original), to foot-tapping effect. By and large it all hangs together and I can’t fault the cast for effort. The dance routines (courtesy of Etta Murfitt) are entertaining and there are some effective visual treats, not least of which is the titular dead dog in the suitcase. The on stage musicians, who also take on key parts, notably violinist Patrycja Kujawska as Widow Goodman, cannot be faulted.

But Michael Vale’s set, complete with scaffolding and slide, whilst initially impressive, at times becomes an obstacle course for the cast to negotiate and multiple costume changes only add to the complications. Adding in a Punch and Judy routine, assorted puppetry (marshalled by Sarah Wright)and other creative trickery ends up slowing down proceedings and interrupting the momentum in what is intended to be a high energy entertainment. Sometimes less is more, especially if the intention is to make some points about the iniquity of the contemporary political class. I know this kitchen sink, amateur circus look is a keynote of some of Kneehigh’s work but it does rather blunt the satirical intent.

Still I can’t pretend I didn’t laugh, or jig about a bit, and the whole thing is done in just over a couple of hours. There’s a few days left at the Lyric and then the production moves on to complete the tour in Exeter, Cheltenham, Bristol and Galway.

Napoleon Disrobed at the Arcola Theatre review ****

Jacques-Louis_David_-_Napoleon_Crossing_the_Alps_-_Kunsthistorisches_Museum

Napoleon Disrobed

Arcola Theatre, 7th March 2018

Here is JL David’s preposterously heroic painting of Napoleon Bonaparte Crossing the Alps. The Napoleon of Simon Ley’s alternative history The Death of Napoleon, is of a somewhat different hue. Ley’s novella, his real name was Pierre Ryckmans and he was a Belgian academic specialist based in Australia, imagines NB is smuggled out of St Helena, returns to Paris via Antwerp, and attempts to hook up with the faithful in order to mount a comeback. It all ends rather more prosaically.

This novella forms the basis for this play-ful diversion from Told By An Idiot. co-produced by Theatre Royal Plymouth. Told By An Idiot exists to put the fun into theatre so it is easy to see why this story, about an extraordinary man rendered ordinary and having to deal with the consequences, attracted them. When I say them I mean two gifted Hunters: Paul Hunter co-founder and driving force behind TBAI, and here our Napoleon, and director Kathryn Hunter, theatre’s acting chameleon, last seen in the Emperor at the Young Vic.

The final, and, for me, most valuable contribution however, came from Ayesha Antoine, who plays … everybody else, including Ostrich, the young woman who proves NB’s salvation. The play kicks off with some gentle, and very funny, Napoleon related banter with the audience from Paul Hunter. We cut to the escape from St Helena, NB masquerading as Eugene Lenormand, brought to life with a few well chosen props, the first of a dizzying number of costume changes from Ms Antoine, and the unpinioning of Michael Vale’s raised platform set to create the swelling sea. Sight gags, aural interruptions, wordplay and anachronisms a plenty, take us energetically through NB’s missed meeting with the Bonapartistes in Bordeaux, his train journey from Antwerp and his rendezvous with widow, single mum and melon shop owner Ostrich. The tone then shifts from the affectionately comic to the comically tender as NB abandons his ambitions and his destiny, his double on St Helena having pegged it early,┬áto settle down with Ostrich, whoever she might be.

This is a piece that revels in the artifice and wonder of theatre which delivers more than you might expect or deserve. It might not quite deliver the contemplations on identity and freedom that the director might have imagined, is NB really who he says he is?, but you would have to be a serious miserabilist not to be won over by this. Plainly I am not as miserable as I think I am.