You could experience a momentary double-take walking into the Royal Opera’s Linbury Studio Theatre and thinking you’ve taken a wrong turn into the main house.
A cross-section of the ornate balconies and familiar red curtains of the latter confronts you as you enter, but the crest at the base of the curtains is of Charles III not Elizabeth II – a timely reminder that, in its original incarnation, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera was so successful that it literally laid the foundations for the theatre on Bow Street that is now The Royal Opera House.
So, a neat spin on history and a cunning one because Justin Way’s new staging of Benjamin Britten’s brilliant and creative re-pointing of Gay’s “ballad opera” is dropped firmly and decisively into our own times where the sale of alcohol and women are roughly commensurate. And because throughout the performance Way’s “beggars” sit alongside the stuffed shirts in the makeshift auditorium (well, actually the stuffed shirts are dummies providing further social comment) we, the audience, need to decide where we stand, or rather sit, regarding the morality of the proceedings.
The trouble is that even in Britten’s more acerbic version of this early musical (much enjoyed by the City of London Sinfonia under Christian Curnyn) the great swathes of stilted dialogue no longer titillate as they did back in the early 1700’s and scantily dressed “whores” spouting “thou” and “thy” and “have not” lends the wrong kind of incongruity and leaves what is on paper a classy cast floundering for laughs. Sadly, the only wit in Way’s staging is provided by Kimm Kovac and Andrew Hays’ resourceful designs where the ornate balcony facades fracture like the divided society of the day and a row of drink coolers is cleverly transformed into the shop windows of “the red light district”.
But that’s as far as it goes. Short of re-writing the book of The Beggar’s Opera and turning it into Eastenders – the musical there’s not much to be done to relieve the tedium. The many musical numbers serve as merely “snatches and patches”, often charming in themselves but none really developed sufficiently to build character and heighten emotion – as Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht did so unforgettably in The Threepenny Opera.
None of this cast looked or sounded especially comfortable in the dialogue and the singing was unexceptional. Leah-Marian Jones (Polly) and Sarah Fox (Lucy) had their moments clawing over Tom Randle’s rather uncharismatic Macheath, neither seeming to care that he’s a little past cavorting in his underpants. We, the audience, needed a lot of persuasion to endorse his reprieve from the gallows.