Review: The play ‘Threepenny Opera’ by Graeae Theatre Company

Posted on February 28, 2014

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Centre stage … Graeae's production of The Threepenny Opera.

Graeae Theatre Company do not like to make life easy for themselves. This latest offering, Three Penny Opera, is their own interpretation of an English adaptation of a German translation of the English ‘Beggar’s Opera’. Clearly, the script has already been through the mill a few times.  Can it possibly still be fresh and relevant?

Of course it is. The sadistic Macheath is still out to marry Polly Peachum, but it is now a few years into the future, as the world awaits the coronation of the new King Charles III. Macheath is still surrounded by his thieving friends, and still ultimately doomed to get his comeuppance. Or is he? As we know, all the cheaters, scumbags and ratbags in society are justly punished, no matter who or what they are. Aren’t they? (Look out for the subtle indications that the company might feel differently about this. And when I say ‘subtle’, I mean ‘Graeae subtle’, so basically, look out for the sledgehammer…)

Watching Milton Lopes, it’s hard to believe he could be a murdering rapist scoundrel. This makes him an excellent choice to play Macheath; even as he demeans and manipulates his women and friends, even they can’t quite bring themselves to accept that his behaviour might actually be a bit, well, evil.  Surely murdering rapist scoundrels don’t have such luxuriant hair and baby-faced smiles?  Lopes smiles and charms his way out of everything, distracting from the real darkness he leaves in his wake. If he wasn’t such an asset to the acting world, he would make a fine politician. And I’m fairly hopeful he will be offended by that.

All of the cast deserve a mention; CiCi Howells as Polly, shimmering in her bright red dress, so separate from the dreary criminals she now associates with; Will Kenning and TJ Holmes as entirely surprising (or not) policemen;  Ben Goffe is a particularly potato-faced Crook-Fingered Jake. Each member of the cast manage to shine alone and as part of the whole. And, refreshingly, disability never comes into it, apart from a few brilliantly timed comic references, and a horse.

Graeae Theatre Company. Co production with Nottingham Playhouse and the Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich. "The Threepenny Opera".The updated lyrics are vicious, poisonous satire, aimed squarely and forcefully where they should be. I loved witnessing the different audience reactions throughout the show; it is not an easy ride that Graeae have invited us along on. Stephen Collins and Pickles Norman are wonderful in their visual interpretation of the British Army making salami out of foreigners, but the audience were almost afraid to applaud such an outrageous, unrepentant smashing of taboos. Which, obviously, I thought was a fantastic response. There’s no point socking it to ‘em, unless you sock it hard.

The show is captioned; at Nottingham Playhouse all dialogue was projected to just under the proscenium arch, but I imagine this will change from theatre to theatre. Personally, I prefer to see captions nearer the action, along the bottom of the stage, so you can watch and read simultaneously; but this is nit-picking. We all have our preferred styles of access, but true accessibility is about everybody having the opportunity to follow and enjoy the whole show, not pleasing everyone’s tiny whims.

It is, of course, a musical, but if you are deaf don’t be put off by that. The standout song for me, surprisingly, was Amelia Cavallo, playing Jenny, singing alone about her doomed love affair with Macheath. Surprisingly, because it is a song with very little BSL translation, but Cavallo’s rollercoaster of emotions was so physical, I was transfixed. In fact, I didn’t even notice the background signing until halfway through. On which note, Jude Mahon is surely the most fantastically filthy British Sign Language interpreter around. During the fully sign interpreted songs, it’s pretty much impossible to take your eyes off her swearing, sexy, sometimes tragic translation, whether you are deaf or not. It says a great deal about the talent and stage presence of the vocal singers that you do actually notice them as well. I imagine they sound pretty damn raucous too; they certainly look like they’re giving it some proper welly.

The stage is often extremely busy. Particularly in the first half, with everybody being introduced; it’s easy to miss the captions or the action. Many scenes, particularly the musical numbers, include the vast majority of the cast, which leads to an extremely bustling stage.  It is impossible to take everything in; such a shame, it means you’ll just have to go and see it again and again. Darn.

I was fortunate enough to spend some time with the cast after the show, and was able to see their deep-rooted passion for their characters and the story they tell. They also tried to convince me to write certain things in this review that, frankly, would see me fired forever. All I can say is, if you think you can handle them, go to a post-show discussion and you’ll discover that the sense of austerity anarchy and political unrest doesn’t end with the show.

The cast might implore that you “don’t have nightmares, or be upset,” but you will leave the theatre feeling emotionally drained. Plus, you’ll be knackered just from watching them. The coffee bill for this show must be through the roof, but, fortunately, so is the energy and the talent.

By Emily Howlett

You can find out more and book tickets here