Marc Blitzstein’s American “labour opera”, first produced in New York in 1937 by John Houseman and Orson Welles, was dedicated by the author to Brecht, and was described by Brooks Atkinson as “the classic proletariat musical drama”.
While Arcola director Mehmet Ergen may subscribe fully to the piece’s angry politics (there’s no way of telling, though he did direct it once before already, at the BAC in 1997), I suspect he chooses rather to mark the transition from the old Arcola to the new one along the road in January with a theatrical blast that is as uncompromising as it is fascinating.
Blitzstein (1905-1964) is clearly influenced by Brecht’s musical collaborator Hans Eisler in songs and marches of acrid melodiousness, ever-changing rhythms, atonal inflections and wonderful vitality. Patti LuPone sang the show’s stand-out item, “The Nickel Under the Foot” when Houseman brought his last American production to the Old Vic in 1985; Alicia Davies is no less touching or persuasive as the cynical street-walker.
With cuts and hardship just around the corner, this is no bad time for statements of defiance and solidarity. The ten scenes depict the vain efforts of the Liberty Community and big business to stamp out unionism, a campaign that might well find a new engaged audience. Good old-fashioned socialism – hell, even opposition leader Ed Miliband used the “S” word the other day – might make a comeback, with this show, set in Steeltown, USA, as its cheerleader.
The regimented staging suits this atmospheric arena perfectly, with clever design by Lisa Engel and Hannah Penfold, and expressive lighting by Alex Wardle. Great musicianship, too, from Bob Broad, seated at a piano head on to the action.