The Beggar's Opera & A Chorus of Disapproval, Bristol Old Vic, Bristol

A double helping of slim pickings
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The Independent Culture

It's a good gimmick: stage Gay's The Beggar's Opera, and use the same cast in a concurrent production of Ayckbourn's A Chorus of Disapproval, which is about an am-dram production of – The Beggar's Opera.

A Chorus of Disapproval revolves around a man who joins a light-operatic society and finds himself beset by lustful middle-class women while becoming entangled in shenanigans involving a real-estate deal. Jules Davison plays the frustrated housewife Heather as a suburban Hedda Gabler, a bundle of nerves and grimaces, and Martyn Ellis revels in the part of Dafydd ap Llewellyn – a role for which any actor would probably sell his grandmother, since it features a continuous flow of snappy one-liners.

But Elwyn Johnson's production disappoints. The actors appear reluctant to play the piece straight and trust the author's skill to win the audience's laughter. Instead, there are grating "comedy" performances that add a depressing edge to the evening by mining the cheapest of laughs.

It might have been better if the two directors involved had swapped. Gareth Machin, who directs The Beggar's Opera, has staged meticulously conceived 20th-century pieces in the past, and his talent would have served the Ayckbourn play well. His Beggar's Opera suffers from a surfeit of detail, losing sight of the fact that this is a musical entertainment, not merely a display of theatrical archaeology. Not until Macheath (Marcello Walton) makes his entrance and launches into a lusty rendition of "Over the Hills and Far Away" does the required energy kick in, and the second half, with fine performances from Kevin Walton as Lockit, Joanne Redman as Lucy and Nicola Sloane as a louche Diana Trapes, is a more enjoyable experience than the first.

The idea of staging the two plays side by side offers little added value. At best, it provides an extra layer of superficial interest as one sees how much the actor and the part must work together to make an impact. Who would have thought that Walton, who makes hardly a ripple as a frustrated wife-swapper in A Chorus of Disapproval, should be the energising force that kickstarts The Beggar's Opera? But these are curiosities, and do nothing to enhance the viewing of either production. The only real benefit of the juxtaposition is that it offers those who enjoy the Beggar's Opera sampler in the Ayckbourn play a chance to check out the full product.

In rep until 8 June (0117 987 7877)

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