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The Convict's Opera (Salisbury & tour)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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The Convict's Opera recalls not one, but two legendary successes, John Gay’s eighteenth-century hit, The Beggar’s Opera and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 multi-award- winning Our Country’s Good.

Gay’s Newgate Pastoral satirises influential people and institutions by relocating them in London’s criminal underworld and recasting them as villains. Gay’s ‘hero’ is dashing, womanising highwayman Macheath, fought over by Polly, daughter of the fence Peachum and Lucy Lockit, daughter of the rascally gaoler of Newgate Prison. Whores and Macheath’s gang complete the dramatis personae. Gay cleverly adds to his subversion of the ballad opera, which ‘recycles’ well-known tunes of the time, by giving pithy, even scurrilous new lyrics to airs often originally graced with charming pastoral words.

Wertenbaker’s life-affirming play is set in a penal colony in seventeenth-century Australia. A British officer stages George Farquhar's witty Restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer with a cast of convicts. Despite the contempt of his fellow officers, the downtrodden underdogs rise to being treated courteously by their officer/director and to the transforming power of art. As director of the unforgettable first production, Max Stafford-Clark is himself revisiting territory, with convicts turned actors, this time aboard a ship bound for Australia.

He admits to wanting ‘a second bite at the convict cherry’ and once again he’s assembled and directs with inspirational verve a crack cast - of Aussies and Poms (the production enjoyed a successful run in Australia). All accomplished solo singers and musicians, they also blend into a breathtaking ensemble to tackle Gay’s chosen airs and updating his strategy, some modern songs with new lyrics. (not always successfully - 'Those were the Days' for example, seems too passé to merit replacing the terrific 'In the Days of my Youth').

Although this is great entertainment, and should not be unfairly compared with Wertenbaker’s play, it does perhaps fall between two stools. Writer Stephen Jeffreys’ conceit has the Captain press-ganging an ex-actor turned convict into staging the production to keep fellow convicts occupied on the long voyage. His players include an arsonist, a coin counterfeiter, ‘politicals’ and a runaway slave. But Jeffreys gives such a full account of The Beggars Opera that he hasn’t time to flesh out the stories of the individual convicts, who make more than the arduous journey to Australia as they get to grips with their roles..

Nonetheless, aficionados of The Beggars Opera and newcomers alike should warm to Juan Jackson’s well-muscled Macheath/runaway slave Morton, cutting a dash in ragged red military greatcoat over tattered string vest. Amelia Cormack’s Lucy and Ali McGregor as arsonist turned Polly (playing zither like a grimy Shirley Abicair) sing and act their stripy socks off. Karina Fernandez’ Di Trapes/political Phebe and Catherine Russell’s Mrs Peachum are a joy to watch and hear as is Russell’s double act with the ever sexy and saturnine Brian Prothero’s Peachum/coiner.

-Judi Herman


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