This new musical updates John Gay's 1728 The Beggar's Opera and sets it in our own times. It plays out to the backdrop of the Olympics where the city is rampant with homelessness and evil media moguls are in charge. Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill did a similar thing in 1928 with The Threepenny Opera – being revived at the National this month. But Dougal Irvine's piece doesn't pack quite the same satirical punch, or have quite the same number of catchy tunes, as either of its predecessors.
George Maguire leads the cast as Macheath, a reality TV star turned anarchist busker, with very few morals. He marries the eco-hippy activist daughter of newspaper man Jeremiah Peachum, Polly, and catches Peachum and the Mayor Lockitt's attention through his tricksy provocative songs which get listened to by the masses via the internet. But Macheath is no good guy, he draws attention to the plight of the capital's homeless, whilst simultaneously exploiting them in the process – he pushes one beggar back to drink in order to rake in the YouTube hits. As a result, Lockitt and Peachum are on a blackmailing mission to get him on their side.
It's an admirable effort, but Irvine's book is scrappy: it needs more work on the main thread of story line. The songs are also fine, but there are few standout numbers and the piece bolts through a lot of them in a very short space of time. With the exception of "Phone Calls" (an absolute blast) and "Love Song" (sung beautifully by Lauren Samuels and Maguire) they aren't given enough space to land.
There is a lot to be said for Irvine's cast, however and though Maguire is a little unfocused in his Russell Brand-channeling Macheath, several other cast members shine. Samuels is very funny as the kooky Polly, and Natasha Cottriall who plays a TOWIE-esque Lucy Lockitt, is superb. She sings "Do You Want a Baby Baby?" with great comic timing. John McCrea is also very believable as hapless reporter Filtch.
Irvine's lyrics are impressive, although in the piece's early moments, where the inspiration behind The Buskers Opera is laid out, feel laboured. In this section the cast all rap, which evokes a slightly cringy sense that the show may turn into a wannabe-Hamilton. Thankfully it doesn't continue down that path, but even so, The Buskers Opera never quite manages to find its way.