Glad to be Gay

MUSIC THEATRE The Beggar's Opera Lyric Hammersmith, London
The Beggar's Opera, first staged in 1728, may not really be opera but, by gum, it's British. By mixing speech and songs, John Gay opened the door for German Singspiel (The Magic Flute, Fidelio), French opera comique (Carmen) and, by way of The Threepenny Opera (itself derived from Gay), the modern musical. So much for the claim that this country contributed nothing to operatic history between Purcell and Britten.

The work invites creative intervention. Its text is heavy with allusions that pass us by, its songs are a K-Tel compilation of contemporary hits. Britten made them his own in his 1948 version, Frederick Austin's 1920 version ran for 1,463 consecutive nights at the Lyric Hammersmith, and Richard Bonynge unashamedly showbizzed it for his 1981 recording: all faithful to the spirit of the piece, which played fast and loose with whatever came to hand. Now, in the National Youth Music Theatre production by Jeremy James Taylor and Frank Whately, The Beggar's Opera returns to the Lyric in Martin Best's arrangement for two guitars (Mark Ashford, Claire Curtis) and double-bass (Tom Allwood). If that seems a flimsy combination, in practice it works superbly, particularly with young voices that might struggle against larger forces.

The age range of those on stage runs from 13 to 20, and, unsurprisingly, the vocal style favours a crooning vibrato pitched somewhere between Las Vegas and a boozy sing-song. Period manners are not the point, although it's not always clear what the point is. The staging opens in what used to be Cardboard City underneath London's South Bank Arts Centre, where a preamble reminds us how difficult it is for modern drama students to get a grant. True, but contemporary "relevance" isn't something you graft on to a piece. This, and a finale in which London bobbies break up the party, distract from Gay's hardly dated digs at any number of recognisable targets: opera itself, an iniquitous prison system, a corrupt legal profession, an even more corrupt political culture.

Fortunately, these two scenes are bookends, with the opera (or as much of it as can be fitted in) proceeding unencumbered, if sometimes cumbersomely. Some of the cast adopt Mockney accents, others sound determinedly middle class, but everyone performs with gusto. While Christian Coulson and Madeleine Worrall are a touch too wholesome for highwayman Macheath and Polly, Lucy- Anne Bradshaw's Lucy Lockit is a more attractively unattractive proposition. Barty Lee makes a splendidly lubricious Peachum, forever licking his lips at the prospect of another penny in his pocket. As his wife, Joanna Hewitt is equally over-ripe, and Oliver Thornton's Fitch clearly enjoys his cross- dressing chance.

It's in the second half that the production really takes off. Newgate Prison is Lockit's domain, and Neil Clench makes it his own in a performance that reeks of moral and physical disorder. Like the rest of the cast, he has to deal with a Carry On production that forces him to face the audience nearly all the time, but his gaoler is the rotting heart of a piece which, even now, has plenty of points to make.

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