You could experience a momentary double-take walking into the Royal Opera's Linbury Studio Theatre – thinking you've taken a wrong turn into the main house, as a cross-section of the ornate balconies and familiar red curtains of the latter confronts you. John Gay's original The Beggar's Opera was so successful that it laid the foundations for the theatre that is now the Royal Opera House.
However, Justin Way's new staging of Benjamin Britten's brilliant and creative re-pointing of Gay's "ballad opera" is dropped firmly into our own times where the sale of alcohol and women are roughly commensurate. And because 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 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, and scantily dressed "whores" spouting "thou" and "thy" 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's resourceful designs where the ornate balcony façades 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 "snatches and patches", often charming in themselves but none really developed 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 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.
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