One of Alan Ayckbourn’s finest plays, paralleling the plot of The Beggar’s Opera with the romantic and commercial shenanigans within an amateur dramatic and light opera society who are putting it on, falls slightly flat in Trevor Nunn’s revival starring Rob Brydon.
Nothing much wrong with Brydon – who’s making a West End debut – as the over-weaning Welsh director Dafydd ap Llewellyn (a role originated in London by Michael Gambon at the National), but the dynamics of his relationship with the new “Macheath,” the bereaved office worker Guy Jones of Nigel Harman, are not quite right.
This is because Harman plays the Leeds refugee – the action takes place in an unspecified provincial town – as a cowed, but always plausible, Lothario, not a timid, unlikely sex god who finds himself torn between the director’s wife (Ashley Jensen is more tentative than sexually and socially distraught) and the club’s voracious married “swinger” (Daisy Beaumont is all too horribly lascivious).
And while the great scenes of backstage and real life overlap work well in the play’s second act, there’s an over-emphatic quality in the ensemble playing that misses the comic charm of am-dram excess. There’s an annoying stylistic musical confusion, too, between natural and microphoned voice, and live and recorded keyboard (Steven Edis is the “beggar” and musical director).
But there are no complaints about Robert Jones’ brilliant, detailed realistic design, which flows smoothly between pub and lounge interiors, set numbers and the onstage rehearsals, where Brydon’s cuckolded director pours out his heart unwittingly over the Tannoy and then organises the lighting plot in the gallery while his wife and her lover face the music onstage in a mish-mash of cues.
The best supporting performances are those of Matthew Cottle as a wilting but dedicated flower in the society and Georgia Brown (reclaiming that name from the original Nancy in Oliver!) as the stage manager who pulls no punches as the barmaid in her dad’s stage door watering hole.
Susan Tracy is on the edge of an interesting, nervy performance as the dipsomaniac wife of the councillor (a booming Barrie Rutter) who owns the disputed piece of land, while the narrative thread of that land’s destiny becomes tangled in some vocally underpowered delivery and the need to finish the show where it starts: with Macheath on the gallows just in time for a happy ending.
Ayckbourn’s original production (the great, but then ailing, Colin Blakely succeeded Gambon on Shaftesbury Avenue) helped me enjoy The Beggar’s Opera more than I usually do. That’s not the case here, where the singing is tepid and perfunctory and the “amateurism” of the performance not confined to clumsy physical movement.