At least The Buskers Opera doesn’t pretend to be an entirely original work, with repeated references to The Beggar’s Opera, written by John Gay and first performed in 1728. However, it borrows so much from it, including most of the characters’ names, that I personally think it is more accurate to call it a musical theatre adaptation of Gay’s ballad opera rather than “a new musical”. It is no spoiler to say that Macheath (George Maguire, the ‘Sunny Afternoon’ one, not the ‘Billy Elliot’ one) is saved from death; as it was in 1728 so it is in 2016. What’s more striking is that Macheath’s death is still dramaturgically very plausible in these apparently more enlightened times.
There are some very fast paced lyrics, delivered almost at rapping speed. Ironically, an actual rap was slower; nothing, thankfully, is lost in the excellent acoustics of the Park Theatre, with the odd line or two following a song drowned out only by the applause of the receptive audience. The narrative is often driven forward by the songs, but not universally so: after a very strong start, a song called ‘The Tale of the Rat’ just dragged. “Do you not see where we’re going?” was the lyric repeated so often that paradoxically I momentarily lost my place.
From just a minute or two into the show, it becomes evident that Macheath, for whom everything is going so right, is riding a wave that at some point will come crashing down: the second half is more reflective and altogether ruinous, relative to the high-spirited nature of Act One. The songs are sometimes very wordy, occasionally giving Stephen Sondheim a run for his money, and other times being disappointingly banal. There is little that’s hummable (note to those who enjoy coming out of a musical with tunes still in their heads), and few lines are particularly memorable. But, I hasten to add, verses (whether spoken or sung) are witty and well-constructed far often than they aren’t.
I did like how modern technology was incorporated into the narrative, demonstrating it is possible after all to create a full length show (Macheath’s epilogue apologises for its length) that incorporates modern methods of communication without resolving the plot too quickly. But especially in its sections of spoken word, it comes across as like a socialist sermon, or at least a half-speech, half-lecture from Jeremy Corbyn.
The songs are performed with enthusiasm; this is a fresh sound for an upcoming generation, and may not appeal to those who prefer the soaring melodies of musicals past. It is, however, whatever one’s preferences, an accessible production. I suspect that anyone who hasn’t seen the ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ at some point before coming to The Buskers Opera will be reasonably able to follow the storyline.
Invalid Displayed Gallery
More than once, though, the show seems to run out of lyrics, leaving its stellar cast to ‘doo-doo- doop’ their way through to fill the gaps. Certain scene changes are marked by news updates, possibly by a recorded but certainly off-stage voice, which I found moderately irritating, as it didn’t sit well with the direct engagement with the audience in the ‘Extra! Extra!’ style on-stage newspaper seller updates in other scene changes, plus all the asides to the audience in the scenes proper.
This production was less bawdy and saucy than the eighteenth-century original has the potential to be (the 2011 Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production of The Beggar’s Opera, for instance, left little to the imagination in its depiction of the prostitutes and criminals of London at night – this show is comparatively sanitised), but there were touches of irreverence which went down well with this cultured audience. There are stand-out performances from George Maguire in the lead role of Macheath (whose closing speech revealed as much about his character as the two hours plus preceding it), as well as Natasha Cottriall’s Lucy Lockitt, who brought the house down in ‘Do You Want A Baby, Baby?’ (originally made famous by Julie Atherton: how wonderful to finally hear this song in proper context) and David Burt’s Peachum, a tour-de- force antagonist.
Overall, it was very compelling. The Buskers Opera was aptly described by the actor Hadley Fraser, also at the Park Theatre on press night, as “a theatrical firework” and “a fizzing Catherine wheel of a show” – there is indeed a lot to be enjoyed here. Yes, the narrative is imperfect, but so is the narrative of a lot of musicals. With some sparing but skilful use of the actor as musician, it’s an admirable attempt at mixing “artistry with politics”. Despite a modicum of hypocrisy, albeit one acknowledged in the show itself, it raises some pertinent questions about the society in which we live, in a pleasantly satirical fashion.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Inspired by The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay
“The future’s ripe for those who mix, Their artistry with politics…”
London 2012. The world is watching. Can the city deliver the greatest Olympics ever? Pulling the strings is media mogul, broadcaster and puppet master, Jeremiah Peachum. Together with his star of the show, Lockitt, the Mayor of London, they are perfectly placed to capitalise on Team GB’s gold and drive their political agenda across the finish line.
Enter satirical street busker Macheath and his gang of dissenters ‘The Ninety Nine Percenters’. They’re the talk of the town – out to take the fat cats down – and it’s working! This time, Mac may have bitten off more than he can chew. But it’s the twenty first century – you can’t kill a man for singing a few songs, drinking a few beers, inciting political activism in hundreds of thousands of people and sleeping with your daughter. Or can you?
With the ever-influential media operating twenty-four-seven, capital punishment needs to find a new method of delivery…
The Buskers Opera is fresh from the pen of one of the hottest writers emerging in UK theatre, Dougal Irvine, whose catalogue of work includes Departure Lounge, The Snow Queen, Teddy, The Other School, In Touch and Britain’s Got Bhangra. Expect a reckless abandon of political correctness and some top class tunes to redefine a golden age.
Starring Olivier Award winner George Maguire (Sunny Afternoon); David Burt, whose West End credits include Enjolras in the original cast of Les Miserables, Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar, and Lauren Samuels (Bend It Like Beckham, We Will Rock You).
The Buskers Opera
Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London, N4 3JP
Age Restrictions: Suitable for 15+
Show Opened: 28th Apr 2016
Booking Until: 4th Jun 2016
Important Information: Latecomers may not be admitted.
Thursday 3.00pm 7.30pm
Saturday 3.00pm 7.30pm