Dead Dog in a Suitcase, Kneehigh at Bristol Old Vic

WHEN I left the Old Vic after watching this show for two-and-a-half hours, I was not quite sure if my feelings were those of elation and excitement or darn right depression.

One thing  is certain, Carl Grose’s re-working of John Gay’s Beggars Opera and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera with a vibrant addition of music by Charles Hazle­wood, which incorporates many modern styles, electro disco, dubstep and punk amongst them, plus some traditional airs, is the sort of theatre that cannot be ignored. It is theatre that demands a response from its audience, some of whom were fascinated as it predicted a very bleak future for mankind unless it changed its ways right now, others who were appalled by its forthrightness painting all those in authority as corrupt villains choking themselves and the world on their own greed.

The wonderful characters and bare bones of the story to be found in the Gay and Brecht operas are placed in a modern setting, where one can all too easily find parallels with cont­emporary society. Apart from the occasional burst of expertly-installed humour, dir­ector Mike Shepherd rem­orselessly drives his actors on, painting one crime after another in a race for money and power calculated to bring humanity ever nearer to the abyss.

All that may sound too gloomy – and in lesser hands probable would be – but here we have a company that, following in the steps of Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, is a team first and foremost. Designer Michael Vale has created a multi-purpose set that the company uses to gain, with equally good input from lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth and sound designers Ian Davies and Jay Jones,  wonderful changes of place and effect.  One minute the stage is a peaceful end of a pier, the next a cauldron of light, sound and music.

While the backstage teams do their part in creating these changes of mood and atmosphere, the company on stage seamlessly changes the settings, provides the musical accompaniment, changes from actors and vocalists into dancers to interpret  choreographer Etta Murfitt’s movement which has as many variations as composer Charles Hazlewood’s score.

Although it is a splendid ensemble, Kneehigh is never short of actors capable of presenting strong leading characters. Among them Dominic Marsh’s anti-hero Macheath. going from charmer to selfish villain and back with deceptive ease, Angela Hardie and Beverley Rudd providing excellent contrasts as the two main women in Macheath’s life, a delicate, but strong- willed Polly Peacham, and brassily determined Lucy Lockit, expertly representing the worst of corrupt nouveau riche ambitious business Martin Hyder and Rina Fatania as Poll’s parents, and matching their greed Giles King as Lucy’s easily bought police chief father,  a beautifully  presented portrait full of sly touches of humour by Georgina Frost as the Peacham’s much mentally and physically abused servant Filch, and Patrycja Kujawska full of pent up emotion as the grieving widow of Mac­heath’s first victim. Her de­nunciation of the  greed and corruption of the world over the melody of Greensleeves pack­ed a tremendous emotion clout.

Never overused, a symbolic Punch and Judy show to help illuminate the action and cleverly presented puppet dog who ends up dead in the suitcase proved the point that often less is best.

All through you have the feeling that the cast was as committed as the director and writer to hammer home Mike Shepherd’s message in the programme “We are in the Age  of the Profoundly Stupid and I long with all my heart and soul for change and a new age of enlightenment where we can all be global citizens”.

It isn’t an easy message to live with, and one which would have quite a few critics among  the audience, but whatever your feelings on the matter in the forceful way it was presented it was a message that no-one who saw the production could ignore.


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