Saturday 29 March 2014

The Threepenny Opera

Birmingham Rep, Birminham


By Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
English translation of the dialogue by Robert David MacDonald
English translation of the lyrics by Jeremy Sams

Joey Hickman, Stephen Collins, Garry Robson, TJ Holmes, Joe Vetch 

There is a raw contemporary relevance about Birmingham Rep's staging of Brecht and Weill's famous work. Against a current backdrop of increasing social deprivation and a widening gap between the poor and the "haves", this co-production with diversity champions Graeae Theatre ingeniously combines able-bodied performers with disabled actors, lobbing in the challenge of actor-muso responsibilities for good measure. 

The staging is raw brickwork enhanced with projections, with both dialog and lyrics being signed as well as being shown as surtitles. We first meet the Peachum family, where Gary Robson's pater-familias is one of the evening's gems. Robson's rough diamond cockney charm is deliciously credible and his explanation of how he has carved up London into different thieving boroughs has echoes of The Long Good Friday's Bob Hoskins. Mrs Peachum is played by Victoria Oruwari, who delivers an exquisite soprano voice. The star however of this (distinctly company-based) show is CiCi Howells, as the much put upon Polly, the Peachums' daughter. In this her first leading role, Howells steps up to the plate magnificently, delivering voice and presence that at all times convinces us of her tortuous journey in love with and then married to Milton Lopes' villainous Macheath (aka Mack The Knife). And when Howells is not singing countless numbers, she drops back into the ensemble and along with the rest of the troupe is responsible for playing up to four musical instruments during the night.

Natasha Lewis, Milton Lopes, Cici Howells

Other notables amongst the cast include Ben Goffe whose (far too brief) tap routine was brilliant, Amelia Cavallo's Jenny, whose smoky, steamy A Little Knocking Shop In Bethnal Green was a fun duet with Lopes whilst Natasha Lewis' Lucy was another treat.

There are flaws, mind. Lopes' Macheath disappoints. Excellent movement, but vocally the actor is nowhere near the menacing charm that his raffish murderer demands. And from a political perspective, whilst the show is meant to challenge and also to protest, some of Jeremy Sam's translation proves too much of a picket line to wade through. There is unnessecary offence too. Politicians and Royalty can be considered fair game for lampooning, but a song that mocks the British Army treads on very thin ice. At one point, a video projection of today's real-life “baddies” screens an image of David Cameron immediately after one of Jimmy Savile. Cameron may well be a political laughing stock, but to compare him to the notorious paedophile is both infantile in gesture and offensive to Savile's victims. The creative team can do better than this.

This Threepenny Opera's strengths though far outweigh its weaknesses. The tales’ references to a flawed judiciary and a fractured world are currently being echoed in Unrinetown, a show on stage in the West End and this show packs at least as big a punch as the far more grandly staged London offering. This is a deliciously unconventional production of a classic piece of musical theatre, performed by a company who present an alternative, stirring and profoundly wholesome approach to the genre. There are moments when the on-stage talent in Birmingham is quite simply inspirational and humbling.

Runs to 12th April 2014
Then touring to the West Yorkshire Playhouse

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