THEATRE / Dressed up for a classic rollicking tale: Beggar's New Clothes - Broomhill

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The Independent Culture
IF you are going to try a steamy reinvention of The Beggar's Opera, you might think twice before trying it in Tunbridge Wells - but then do it anyway. The Broomhill audience who had made it past the strong-language warning signs, and down the vertiginous steps to the lakeside garden where a big performance tent was set up, looked a little uneasy at the prospect. They sipped drinks at tables in the cafe-style space, wondering what to make of the 18-point manifesto in the programme, or the handful of musicians who wandered about intoning catchy ditties. Half an hour on, three of the less patient watchers, disgusted in Tunbridge Wells, made an exit that lost some of its dignity when the man was obliged to return for a handbag.

Broomhill, the house where the personal opera theatre of Sir David Salomons, Britain's first Jewish MP, is under restoration, has had an ambitious summer programme (still to come, Jonathan Miller directing Ariadne auf Naxos). Too ambitious, maybe, since it evidently found problems in attracting the sort of sharp young crowd that must have been in mind for The Beggar's New Clothes. Still, the show drew warm applause as well as bewilderment. So it should: the collaboration between 606 Theatre and the EOS ensemble is rude and raw, but Gordon Anderson's staging keeps up its flair and pace through a near 90-minute span, and holds on to its precarious balance between the bawdy and the barbed with some gusto.

This is that rare thing, political theatre that can make you laugh whatever side you are on. Dic Edwards has written a Beggar's Opera for John Major's England, keeping the characters and the general shape of the plot but planting them in a world of deviants, mainliners and Young Tories. It does get wordy, but it manages to wrap up its radical analysis in some alarmingly succinct speeches and then to deliver a stream of one-liners that puncture its pretentiousness as firmly as they lighten the grossness of the sexual encounters.

Warren Belshaw's music switches rapidly in and out, like the numbers in John Gay's original. Meant for actors rather than operatic voices, it goes for instant punch and fluency and achieves a couple of strong Les Mis-type tunes, some suggestive scoring for a pair of trombones, a song about Macheath that's too close for comfort to 'Mack the Knife', and a genuinely touching moment (duly reprised) for the hypocritical but trapped Mrs Peach. Between them, the authors go for get-rich-quick targets that range from Italian tenors with hankies to vacuous pop songs for kids, in a number about lollipop-sucking which means exactly what you think it might.

There is a dynamic Macheath from Danny Sapani, and strong singing from Anna Galvin as Polly Peach and Lucy Tregear as her mother. Charles Hazelwood directs six musicians - only five on Thursday, however, thanks to an absent clarinettist - who continue roaming around the tent, dressed as the beggars of the day, and rightly prefer energy to fastidiousness. All in all The Beggar's New Clothes could do with 10 minutes' worth of tightening up, but just as the steam threatens to run out it achieves a climax that tips from black farce to high pathos in a couple of seconds. Not quite Brecht and Weill, but certainly more fun.

Transfers to the Cockpit Theatre, London NW8, from 24 August to 4 September, 7.30pm (box office: 071-402 5081)