Opera; Rich and fruity

THE BEGGAR'S OPERA WILTON'S MUSIC HALL, LONDON

JOHN WILTON's East End Music Hall opened in December 1858, just six months after the present Royal Opera House nearby in the old Covent Garden market.The back room to the Prince of Denmark pub, Wilton's "Temple to Apollo" had a gallery especially for "sailors and their women", so as not to offend honest trades folk seated below. By 1885, the hall had become a Methodist mission. And by 1964, when John Betjeman campaigned to save it, the hall was a rag warehouse.

Since then, it has only been used for the odd film or TV shoot (Ken Russell's Isadora, Richard Attenborough's Chaplin, Annie Lennox's video, No More I Love You). Then, in December 1997, Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw briefly brought it back to theatrical life for a staging of Eliot's The Waste Land.

A year ago, it was taken over by Broomhill Opera, lately exiled from its original base in Tunbridge Wells. Since then, Broomhill has staged Kurt Weill's Utopian fantasy The Silver Lake (translated by Rory Bremner) and spent over pounds 430,000 on repairs - with no public subsidy. Coincidence, then, that the company should choose to stage The Beggar's Opera in the week before Covent Garden reopens after its pounds 214m Lottery-assisted facelift?

The "painted ladies" are back at Wilton's (and pleasuring "Captain" Macheath in more positions than you can imagine) in Jonathan Miller's wry and raunchy new staging, while Gay's savage satire on private greed and public corruption, the incestuous allying of cops and robbers, big business and petty crime, needs no updating to ring as true in Tony Blair's day as in Walpole's.

Or Disraeli's. For Miller's gone for a Dickensian feel, to match the venue. It's a "poor theatre" staging, as befits a "beggar's opera" (and Broomhill's budget). The set is just a line of wooden doors propped up behind a table, two chairs and two benches. Miller, on top form, coaxes intense, detailed performances from a strong cast, led by Mike Burnside's saturnine Peachum and Michael Feast's erotomaniac Macheath - and the drama never flags in three hours.

Ali McGregor's luscious-toned Polly and Tara Harrison's slightly acid Lucy have the only trained voices, but everyone's words are strong, even when their singing is weak. Composer Jonathan Lloyd's "arrangement" is really a dazzlingly inventive, uproariously funny new score (ably conducted by Charles Hazlewood).

With only eight players, but unexpected instruments such as accordion, banjo and guitar, as well as swing bass, Lloyd creates a constantly ironic commentary on the action - punctuated by fruity brass raspberries, curious peeps and squeaks, and a recurring glissando that sounds like the equivalent of a Cockney wide-boy's whine - while kaleidoscopically recasting the traditional airs in a dizzying variety of styles (from baroque to bluegrass, C&W to New Orleans, funk to folk) and forms (from ominous underscorings to quirky counterpoints to big concerted choral numbers).

It will be a real crime if Miller and Lloyd's version of The Beggar's Opera isn't filmed or recorded now.

Mark Pappenheim

To 18 Dec, 0870 906 3739

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