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A CurtainUp London Review
The Villains' Opera

By Lizzie Loveridge

John Gay's The Beggars' Opera was a phenomenal success in 1728 when it was staged by John Rich in London's Lincoln's Inn Fields. It was said then that, "It made Gay rich and Rich gay". It was famously updated by Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill in 1928 as The Threepenny Opera, a difficult act to follow. In January, I saw a modern rock version at the Young Vic Studio called Soho Story. Now our revered National Theatre brings us The Villains' Opera, reworking some of the original tunes into a modern musical. The characters are the gun wielding, drug dealing modern equivalents of Gay's lower class or cut-throats, whores and highwaymen.

Set in southeast London on the "wrong side of the water" (south of the Thames) to the backdrop of The Dome and Canary Wharf, at Woolwich, is the pub, "The Flower of Kent" run by Peachum, a small time police informer and criminal wheeler dealer. Mr Big, the gangland boss lives away from the crime areas in a pretty village in Kent as a respectable member of society. Captain Macheath is a criminal with ambition, a persistent womaniser, he has married Polly Peachum and got Lucy Lockit in the family way. Lucy's father, is a bent copper (a policeman who takes back-handers). Lockit needs a name to arrest and Peachun gives him Macheath whom he doesn't know has married his daughter. We follow the villains through their underworld, gangs of car thieves, street criminals and lapdancers in Soho vice clubs as Peachum and Lockit attempt to catch Macheath, who later uncovers Mr Big's pot of gold and turns a policewoman to the dark side.

Nick Dear's script is full colourful language and references to local places in the seemier side of London. He has created a realistic picture that's often not funny but full of irony. These are menacing men who treat their women, wives and daughters badly. Pretty tunes sit next to ugly lyrics. We have Mrs Peachum singing "I Love My Man" about how much she loves her husband, the man who regularly batters her or "Street Crime", a song celebrating mugging and car theft. Although Dear concentrates on the criminal classes, he also portrays the homeless and some of the affluent villagers who want Mr Big to stand for election to the parish council. I liked Stephen Warbeck's music. It is a mixture of rock and rock ballads, some using Gay's tunes.

Tim Supple, a director known for his innovative, physical productions at the Young Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company, has created a Mayfair nightclub scene that is so realistic you almost feel that you're watching a live porn show. The girls strtting their bodies in a raunchy dance, singing "Visa, Mastercard, Amex …", turn out to be aspiring actresses and students of medicine, using the club to pay school fees. Robert Innes Hopkins' ten dramatic sets use a backdrop of rolling metal doors, the sky often lit up with local landmarks -- the highlights being an East Greenwich Tube Station and a motorway driving scene

The musical is not sung through and many of the performers are National Theatre ensemble actors who can also sing, which makes for high quality performances. Alexander Hanson has the right amount of feckless charm as Macheath. Madeleine Worrall and Elizabeth Renihan sing well as Macheath's girlfriends; Beverley Klein excels as Mrs Peachum belting out her songs. There are many good cameos of gangsters and petty thieves.

The final shoot out is well staged, comprehensive and played for laughs. Some of the spoken humour needs local knowledge to be appreciated but the accents are accessible. I couldn't recommend that you take the under 18s to this show with its lavish helpings of sex and violence. The three hours are well paced, with plenty to laugh at and several tunes one would like to hear again.

THE VILLAINS' OPERA after John Gay's The Beggars' Opera
Written by Nick Dear
Music by Stephen Warbeck
Directed by Tim Supple

With: Clive Rowe, Adrian Sarple, Michael Wildman, Liam McKenna, David Arneil, David Burt, Oliver Cotton, Sara Powell, Beverley Klein, Madeleine Worrall, Allyson Brown, Alexander Hanson, Samantha Lavender, Anthony Renshaw, Jai Armstrong, Anthony Clegg, Pauline Carville, James Earl Adair, Alastair Parker, Omar F Okai, Sally Anny Triplett, Paddy Navin, David Alder, Leigh McDonald, Neville Robinson, Myra Sands, Ceri Ann Gregory, Helen Latham, Maggie Lloyd-Williams, Elizabeth Renihan.
Set Design: Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting Design: Paule Constable
Music Director and additional orchestrations: Neil McArthur
Associate Music Director: Paul Englishby
Sound Design: Colin Pink, (for Orbital) Simon Whitehorn
Movement: Jane Gibson
Fight Director: Malcolm Ranson
Company Voice Work: Patsy Rodenburg
Running time: 3 hours 15 mintes with an interval
National Theatre Ensemble
Box Office:
020 7452 3333 Booking to 6/10/2000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 12th June 2000 performance at The Olivier Theatre, Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1

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