The Beggars Opera, Shaftesbury Arts Centre

promptbeggar-and-dogLET me begin by saying that I believe John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera to be a masterpiece of music theatre, and I am no fan of Benjamin Britten’s tinkering with familiar tunes.

Myra McDadd’s big idea for her production of the Britten adaptation, on stage at Shaftesbury Arts Centre until Saturday 15th October, was to move the setting to the waste recycling centre at Wincombe Business Park, and show the audience a scratch cast performing for a homeless and bedogged beggar’s vision of the play that ends with the thought “the wretch of today may be happy tomorrow”.

So there is a real dog (one Tiffin) in this play, and wonderful he is, resisting the temptation that would have overcome me to howl loudly through some of the scenes.

There is also what is known among opera singers as a “park and bark” performance, but it was not from the excellent Tiffin! Perhaps the creative team felt that the idea of a scratch performance by a group of homeless people would nullify the need for acting. That isn’t so.

There is much that is good and inspiring about this show, and so much that should have been thrown out in the rehearsal period. The arrival of the company in day clothes, changing into their costumes on stage, and out of them again at the end, gave a contemporary feel to the show.  But the lighting was inexplicable, mostly very dark but turning bright from time to time with no reason – other, presumably, than to enable the audience to see.

Britten’s music is difficult to sing, and it flummoxed many of the cast. Add to that the fact that it should reflect the rhythms of the original, and the shining star of the show is Anne-Louise Richards as Polly Peachum, with Joni Clowrey’s Lucy Lockit following in her wake.

Hugo Purdue is a powerful Lockit and Stephen McDadd a schemingly avuncular Peachum, with Janet Botterill, looking very like Miriam Margolyes, as his “wife”.

The best moments came from Polly Peachum and the male chorus’s Fill Ev’ry Glass.

In the central role of the charismatic Captain Macheath, Charles Dillon looked the part.

The orchestra, conducted by MD Ruth McKibbin, did Britten proud, with especially fine woodwind passages.

The director had an interesting idea in emphasising the timelessness of the story, but I think the music is just too difficult for the majority of the singers, and there is an empty hole at the core.



FOOTNOTE: Thursday 13th October 8am:  The unique chance offered by one’s own website is the chance to revisit stories.

I woke this morning feeling that I had been in some way unfair to the Shaftesbury Drama Group, while not retracting any of the criticisms above, and considered re-writing the review. Instead  I will add to it.

The costumes, by Liz Carruthers, Sandra Trim, Jan Klakus, Angela Wykeham and Carol Sue Hoskins, were perfect for the job, colourful and inventive. The cluttered set (apart from the clunky Newgate Jail “gate”) added to the atmosphere.

And the whole thing was an interesting challenge, and all credit to those involved for avoiding the staple fare.  But the fact is that Shaftesbury Arts Centre Drama Group is NOT an amateur operatic society, and so the assumption that the voices could deal with the requirements of the music was unfortunate. And while a group of the homeless gathered around a rubbish dump/recycling centre in either 1728 or 2016 might very well have been able to tackle the simple tunes of the Gay original, they would not have undertaken Britten – unless it was a gathering point for homeless unemployed opera singers.  I think it is about cutting one’s coat according to the cloth.



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