Launching their new season on an unsuspecting public, Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum brings a brand new envisioning of John Gay’s 1728 musical play The Beggar’s Opera to the stage, complete with sex, stilettos and a dash of sci-fi: this isn’t your great-great-great-great-grandfather’s Beggar’s Opera.
Gay’s original political and social satire told of the attempts by thief-catcher Peachum to capture arch-criminal Macheath, only to discover that their daughter has married him.
As the pair attempt to capture Macheath with the intention of killing him for his money, they don’t reckon on his coterie of lovers and admirers who will stop at nothing to help him escape…while all the while music and madness reign around them as the band plays on.
Updating the opera for a new generation, director Matthew Lenton has opted to set his version in the future, meaning bizarre costumes, a running commentary from a TV news anchorwoman (the beggar of the original play) and the use of a projected backdrop above the actors.
The basic story at the centre of the spectacle is a relatively straightforward one, a bawdy romp through the lives of various characters which never takes itself too seriously.
There’s little depth to the piece and it’s best not focus on the details, such as the fact that while much is made of Macheath’s criminal mastery, we hardly see any of this occur on-stage.
While the script issues could perhaps be overcome with a decent cast giving it their all, this productions sadly throws a spanner in the works by allowing the spectacle to overtake the work of the actors from the outset.
The near-constant musical accompaniment from Glasgow group A Band Called Quinn soon becomes a distraction, lead singer Louise Quinn unintelligible for most of the run time.
Noise from the band and other sound effects also drown out some of the opening dialogue from Bryce and Goldsmith, a problem which carries on through the production.
The few shocks thrown in to upset the more conservative members of the audience may raise a smile and the clever use of filmed footage in the prison sequence do add another dimension to the scene, but there’s a sense that none of this is really necessary, a smokescreen to hide the fact that nothing much is actually happening.
Sandy Grierson makes for a decent lead, giving the two-dimensional Macheath a swagger and brio that just about tallies with what other characters say about him.
James Bryce and Pauline Goldsmith go suitably OTT as Mr and Mrs Peachum while other supporting characters make little impression, bar a feisty turn from Elspeth Brodie as lovelorn Lucy Lockit.
Lenton and set designer Kai Fischer are to be applauded for their impressive handling of the set and costume designer Eve Lambert also deserves recognition for her steampunk-infused fashions.
Sadly the feeling at the end of the evening is that their undoubted talents could have been better spent trying to work with their clearly willing cast to make the show more relevant to today’s world rather than a future one nobody can identify with.
Jonathan Melville (follow me on Twitter for the latest theatre reviews)
The Beggar’s Opera runs at the Royal Lyceum Theatre until 3 October.