The Threepenny Opera – Lyric Theatre – Review by Cathy Brown
27 Jan – 10 Feb
For his opening production as artistic director of Northern Ireland Opera, Walter Sutcliffe has cleverly partnered with the Lyric Theatre to present The Threepenny Opera. With its themes of corruption and moral turpitude feeling particularly relevant, this bawdy hybrid of opera and musical theatre will appeal to a wider audience demographic than might otherwise have been the case.
Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s musical opera was originally based on John Gay’s 18th-century operetta, and was first performed in Berlin in 1928, set in Victorian London. This grimily spirited revival may fall short in drawing out any political parallels with society today, but it does remind us that low-life exuberance can be as compelling as any other art form.
Set in 1950s London in the days before the Coronation, The Threepenny Opera focuses on Macheath – renowned thief and killer – and his gaggle of women, thugs and foes. From beggars to capitalists, law-enforcers to criminals, these are a rum bunch, on the look out for no one but themselves.
The show opens exuberantly with its most famous number, Mack The Knife, giving the entire cast each their moment in the spotlight.
Dorota Karolczak’s set and Wolfgang Goebbel’s lighting design strip away any excess. This stage is dominated by flashes of cartoonish neon light and a large staircase complete with trapdoors and platforms, emphasising the snakes and ladders game-playing at the opera’s hollow heart.
The set is both this production’s most striking feature and its weak link. Running from orchestra pit to the gods, the stairs are symbolically striking, but the lack of playing space leads to some rather static staging. Their perilous nature also means that the actors spend a lot of time looking down to see where they are putting their feet which is distracting for both them and for the audience.
If Brecht’s book deliberately alienates, then it is in Weill’s score that the emotion comes to the surface. It is during the musical numbers, performed wonderfully by the cast and a band, dressed like extras from Mary Poppins, that the production excels. This is where Walter Sutcliffe gets the best from his cast and turns the play’s generic ambiguity into a strength. Kerrie Quinn is particularly heartfelt as Macheath’s spurned lover Jenny Diver and Brigid Shine is a fine-voiced breath of fresh air as the ballsy Lucy Brown.
Yet the production lacks an energising drive and menace. Richard Croxford as the corrupt Inspector ‘Tiger’ Brown and Stephen Page as the tracksuit clad con-man Jonathan Peachum capture some of that lethal magnetism, however Jayne Wisener and Mark Dugdale as the central couple Polly and Macheath – although both strong singers – lack the dangerous charisma needed to make the audience believe that they will do anything to get what they want.
These sharks might have pretty teeth, but they don’t have the necessary bite.
Book & Lyrics by Bertolt Brecht Music by Kurt Weill
English Adaption by Marc Blitzstein
A co-production from Northern Ireland Opera and Lyric Theatre
Directed by Walter Sutcliffe