Thieves and whores there might or might not have been but there were certainly beggars, huddled round a brazier in the rain outside Theatre Clwyd. Inside, a sprawling figure had dossed down in sacking, a cardboard sign indicating his destitution. Despite the absence of any limbless war-wounded that "touch the hardest of hearts", according to Mr Peachum, king of the beggars, first impressions suggested that Peter Rowe's production of Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera might hit home pretty hard.
In that respect the opening "Ballad of Mac the Knife", here shared out around the company, is spot on. With Jeremy Sams' newish translation of lyrics by Brecht and others (and a long way from Gay) it combines description of thoroughly modern atrocities with gently sentimental music to deeply unsettling effect. There's misery on the faces of those assembling amid the squalor on stage - their decidedly present-day dress curiously at odds with the 1953 Coronation setting. Then the (three)penny drops - this is a performance within a performance. Instead of selling the Big Issue have Mold's homeless got together a new act, perhaps?
Casting The Threepenny Opera is always a problem. Do you go for the musically gifted all-round performers Weill had in mind, or actors who can just about sing? Rowe has struck lucky with a group of singing actors who, as versatile instrumentalists, can knock off a mean melody in a more than passable jazz-band style. Led from keyboards by musical director Greg Palmer, every one of the 14 cast members turns seamlessly from actor to musician and back. As Polly Peachum, Kelly Morris gives a stunning rendering of "Pirate Jenny", livening up a wedding scene that might have benefited from some cutting of the gang's tiresome repartee. Some tightening up of the tedious beggaring about in Peachum's outfitting shop would also have cut the running time at no expense to the narrative or the dramatic characterisation.
In an ensemble company that brings the characters to buzzing, individual low-life, Rebecca Jackson's warm, deep-throated Jenny (a marked contrast to the husky growling of Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya, who made the part so very much her own) makes a seductive partner to Peter Eldridge's wily Macheath, their "Pimps' Ballad" duet sparking a real dramatic intensity. The effect is heightened when, as its creators intended, the songs stop the action in its tracks, leaving some protagonists frozen in attitudes like musical statues. In fact, the music is all handled so well that I found myself wanting to fast-forward through the dialogue to the next song.
Ruari Murchison's adaptable set, obviously conceived with this tour in mind, is a ramshackle wooden shell on two levels, its surrounding space doubling as a kind of orchestral pit, to which performers come and go as the music requires.
Low on special effects, high on exactly the kind of uncompromising theatrical and musical values that give Weill's play with music its hard edge, the production is by no means as dark as it could be. Parodic and comic effects include Jeremy Harrison's corrupt police chief, later doubling as the queen's mounted messenger galloping on to save Mac from execution.
For this, as Sams puts it, is "propera", and as in opera, ladies and gentlemen, mercy tempers justice. In The Threepenny Opera the beggars, thieves and whores carry on with their business, while Mac walks free from the gallows in Weill and Brecht's ironic happy ending.