John Gay’s The Beggar's Opera is a uniquely important and remarkable piece of British theatre: the first of a new genre, the ballad opera, in 1728, that was killed off with the advent of the Lord Chamberlain just nine years later.
In the story of the sex addict and highwayman Macheath, and the corrupt judicial system that pursues him, it’s the basis for Brecht and Weill’s 1928 Threepenny Opera, and usually too mannered and stilted for its own historical reputation.
Richard Eyre’s curiously anodyne production for the National with Paul Jones as Macheath was a good example of this failure of worthiness, but John Caird’s rocked-up RSC version with David Burt in the lead was a revelation, especially in the excitement of the highwaymen’s chorus.
In Regent’s Park, the intrinsic, unadulterated merit of the piece – its filth, vigour, shocking amorality, serpentine plot, endless stream of dramatic duets, and teeming score of sawn-off folk songs and operatic pastiche — is fully honoured in a wonderfully Hogarthian production directed by Lucy Bailey.
Designer William Dudley provides two gargantuan wooden tumbrils that serve as Newgate prison, a quilted bed of lust, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens (with a harlequinade) and, of course, transport to the Tyburn gallows, a huge structure bedecked with coloured lights and nooses.
The action includes a pub brawl, a whores’ parliament, a prison break-out, an orgy, a cat fight. The British musical has never recovered this energy or realism and Bailey’s cast fall on their material with relish. Jasper Britton and Phil Daniels are quality casting as Peachum and Lockit, twin pillars of hypocritical rectitude, acting in a double capacity, both against rogues and “for ‘em” (as they live by them).
Both men treat their daughters like dirt, too, and violently so. Polly Peachum (sweetly sensual Flora Spencer-Longhurst) and Lucy Lockit (rollicking Beverly Rudd, last year’s Into the Woods discovery) are the twin magnets for Macheath – and David Caves’ fit-looking roisterer clasps them to his rippling torso, along with a sextet of other breast-heaving iron filly filings.
The music is played by period experts the City Waites led by Lucie and Roddy Skeaping, and includes short versions of “Green Sleeves” and “Over the Hills and Far Away” and a multitude of once popular ballads, so the piece is also an archival treasure trove brought to quivering, affectionate life. These snippets often seem like extensions of a conversation, or an argument, which lends another compelling dimension to a remarkable evening.