With its bosky setting, there is no better venue in London for presenting a pastoral play than Regent's Park's Open Air Theatre. As such, it's also the ideal place for staging an anti-pastoral. The pointed and piquant counter-intuitiveness of such a project is proven by director Lucy Bailey and designer William Dudley's cunningly conceived and splendidly spirited production of John Gay's groundbreaking 1728 satire. Gay replaced the far-removed trappings of fashionable Italian opera with the criminals and prostitutes of contemporary London, swapping elaborately artificial arias for vernacular ballads set, ironically, to pre-existing airs.
Revivals of the piece often founder – either by turning it into a blithely bawdy romp or by emphasising the corrupt blackness at the expense of the brio. Boasting a character, Peachum, who is both a police spy and a receiver of stolen goods, and uncovering the extent to which crime and the law are in incestuous cahoots, The Beggar's Opera inspired Brecht to rewrite it as The Threepenny Opera.
The success of this version emerges from the swagger and finesse of the piece's firmly eighteenth century setting, its continuing relevance left implicit. Performed by six-piece band City Waites, the music has been re-scored for period instruments (cittern, lute, bagpipes and theorbo) giving the mostly well-sung airs a fresh, street and tavern feel. In witty subversion of the sylvan surroundings, Dudley's design is dominated by a huge wooden gallows around which chained prisoners execute a lively mock-maypole dance. Newgate's walls and interiors are improvised from the giant tumbrils that took the condemned to Tyburn. Scenes seethe with the blackly satiric energy of Hogarth paintings .
In an exceptionally characterful cast, Phil Daniels captures the malevolence of corrupt jailer Lockit to queasily comic effect. As Lucy Lockit, Beverley Rudd packs a hilariously hefty punch in her slapstick scuffles with Polly Peachum (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) over David Caves's amusingly smug heart-throb/highwayman Macheath.
Mingling caustic commentary with creative zest, the production ends with a coup de theatre that's the last word in gallows humour.
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