Whilst Vanishing Point’s production of The Beggar’s Opera at the Lyceum Theatre is certainly original, it’s not nearly as daring as it would like to think it is.
There is some clever stuff going on here, with the stark and well-designed set literally presenting an underworld where the tale of Macheath – the dashing gentleman criminal of John Gay’s 18th-century ballad opera – unfolds. From a staging perspective, Vanishing Point also successfully transport the orginal into a post-apocalyptic near-future setting, allowing them to indulge in some striking cyberpunk wardrobe choices and effective dramatic devices, such as the digitally-rotoscoped animations projected onto a screen at the back of the stage.
However, the direction is a little less successful. Although Gay’s original was by its nature a populist satire, here The Beggar’s Opera becomes a camp cross-dressing cross between the Rocky Horror Show and a steampunk pantomime. There are times during the piece’s relatively short running length when I expected us to be encouraged to shout “he’s behind you” during Macheath’s prison incarceration; or to sing along to words appearing on a sheet dropped down from the gantry.
Fortunately, neither of these panto staples actually happened, but if they had they would have been completely in keeping with the piece’s mood and pace. Any opportunities for emotion and pathos were removed with a blunt instrument and replaced with frantic mugging and over-laboured attempts to shock. The actors did the best they could with the script, but characterisation was sacrificed to cariacature, leaving them with little to do. Perhaps most puzzling of all, the satirical opportunities were seldom taken, with only a few sideswipes at consumerism and the media being harvested from a fertile ground that could have offered so much more.
I also feel the choice of having a live band not only providing the soundtrack but integrated into the action was a mistake. This is not a criticism of A Band Called Quinn’s competent Moloko-ish style and sound, but more due to the fact that their presence seemed to encourage the rest of the cast into the belief they could sing, providing at least two unnecessarily toe-curling moments.
Visually, The Beggar’s Opera was wonderfully staged and executed and its dark futuristic dystopia was well-realised and portrayed. It was however a shame that this original and unique stage was then used as a backdrop for something so ill-fittingly camp.
The Beggar’s Opera runs at The Lyceum Theatre until 3rd October.