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The Threepenny Opera (Olivier, National Theatre)

Rory Kinnear stars in Simon Stephens' reworking of this dark classic

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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This new version of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera comes courtesy of Simon Stephens, who's kept the tunes (obviously), but brushed up dialogue and lyrics. It's properly coarse, with the imaginative swearing bearing the fruity tang of the East End of London. And there's added inter-generational sauciness: not only does Macheath have it off with the schoolmarm-ish Polly Peachum, but he's been dallying with her licentious mother too; more significant than his romping with the sassy Lucy Brown is his long-standing, sexual relationship with her father, Tiger Brown.

And really, everyone's at it: Stephens even explains Macheath's Teflon-like inability to be brought to justice by having him know a lot of naughty secrets about the King of England… Suddenly, the big happy ending, the illogical deus ex machina, has a motive – which arguably undermines Brecht's jolting conclusion. On the other hand, it does persuasively suggest that corruption isn't confined to the gutter: it goes all the way up to Royalty.

Rory Kinnear might not be an obvious choice for irresistible bad boy – but he does have a magnetic quality and an appropriately shark-like, sinister grin. There's menace there, a metallic coolness, but also a hot arrogance: he'll just reach out and take whatever he wants. In his first musical role, Kinnear sails easily through the songs.

Not that the threat of violence amounts to much: for a murderer, Macheath's hands remain remarkably clean (all the better to grope you with). Stage deaths are daft, stage blood a tangle of red wool; he may have a terrifying butcher's knife but we never think he'd really dismember anyone. Likewise, the anti-capitalist points of Brecht's story may find a splenetic new voice in Stephens' version but the ‘it's hard to be good when you're poor argument' feels tossed on the waves.

Vicki Mortimer's Brechtian design is terrific; characters crash through papered flats, steps and costume rails are openly wheeled around. Evoking the war that Macheath and Tiger Brown fought in together prompts one of Norris' signature simple-but-bloody-effective visual flourishes: lights and sandbags swing through the auditorium, giving a dizzy sense of peril.

The stage is populated by 1920s grotesques in braces and bowler hats; smeared black eye make-up gives the look of a grubby, inky illustration. Some performances are exceptional – Nick Holder as Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, who ‘licenses' the East End's beggars, is camply vile, trotting round in heels like a corpulent pig in a pin-stripe suit. Haydn Gwynne as Celia Peachum holds herself at spiky angles; she aims for alluring, but looks as rickety as the set. And Jamie Beddard frequently owns the stage. He may have a speech impediment, but the joke's on everyone else: he speaks the clearest truth of any of Macheath's henchman.

Rosalie Craig is great as Polly Peachum, an acid touch licking her spic-and-span sensibleness – but despite her usually radiant voice, some first half moments are squawky. As are Sharon Small's, as Macheath's prostitute lover Jenny Diver. Sure, these are meant to be rough-and-ready, but they risk being just rough. Oozing richness, by contrast, is cabaret star Le Gateau Chocolat, who croons "Mack the Knife" deliciously.

Weill's classic music is played with appropriately rackety swagger by a vaudevillian band of accordion, brass, banjo and piano. Yet sometimes there's a stultifying stop-start rhythm between the songs and action, wasting the madcap energy which Norris brings out in hectically choreographed, stylised ensemble scenes and chase sequences. But the second half goes with more of a swing, and I suspect the show will get lighter on its feet yet. It's already very enjoyable – just lacking a little bite.

The Threepenny Opera runs at the National Theatre until 1 October.

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