AAC presents Opera for All / Carden, Purcell Room, London

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The Independent Culture

When John Gay's lowlife subversion of Handelian opera seria, The Beggar's Opera, first hit London in 1728, everybody recognised the suave villain of the piece, Captain Macheath, as a wicked satire on the prime minister Sir Robert Walpole - including, unfortunately, Walpole himself. Unable to stop this first runaway success, he was ready for its sequel, contriving to get Polly banned from performance for almost 50 years.

Gay responded by publishing a lavish edition, but the piece has remained a theatrical rarity. All credit then to the Borough of Brent-based amateur-professional outfit, AAC presents Opera for All, for offering a chance to see it at last, at the Sir Richard Eyre Theatre and, for one night, in the Purcell Room.

Admittedly, they had chosen the rather dated Clifford Bax adaptation, with sweetly nostalgic arrangements of the ballads, country dances and scraps of Handel that Gay set his verses to, by Frederic Austin - the same team whose version of The Beggar's Opera ran for ever at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, in the 1920s. Much of Arlene Conway's production - set, for some reason, on a 1950s film set - came over as rough in the wrong sense. But whether the material ever had the potential to match Gay's first success is doubtful.

Macheath has been deported to the colonial West Indies, but has escaped and set up as a pirate, with one of his London doxies, Jenny Diver, in tow. Thither arrives his true wife, Polly Peacham, to search for him, only to get hopelessly embroiled in the three-way conflict between colonials, pirates and Indians - not to say the machinations of the procuress Mrs Trapes, yet another Beggar's Opera familiar who contrives to turn up.

After complications too silly to summarise, Macheath and Polly are reunited - though Gay originally envisaged hanging the first and marrying the second off to an Indian prince. It is this lack of savagery that confines the piece to a romp.

Still, it brought forth some likeable performers. Though the role of Polly was mysteriously divided between two young singers, both proved promising: the Welsh soprano Laura Thomas firm of phrasing; Sophie Walby more lightly soubrette-ish. There was a vivacious Jenny Diver from Andrea Pope; a stocky, laddish Macheath from the Australian baritone Martin Muir, and a nicely sleazy Mrs Trapes from Annette Dumville.

Not all of the other performers rose above a kind of Gilbert and Sullivan amateurism; and not all of the sung words were as clear as the spoken ones. But the nine-piece Dionysus Ensemble certainly played away with a will, under the florid direction of Derek Cardan, with continuo-like strummings on his electric keyboard. And a large and friendly audience seemed more than happy to have caught up with a jolly missing link in the history of English musical theatre.

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