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Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The Beggar's Opera at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

The weather forecast predicted rain so I was sceptical as to whether ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ would go ahead in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. The policy for this seasonal venue is never to cancel any performance, with the hope that any showers will clear and the play can go ahead. With a completely uncovered stage and auditorium every show is unique, with the weather and open skies adding extra transient effects each night.

Written in 1728, John Gay’s satirical drama was the first ballad opera, poking fun at the very popular extravagant Italian opera of the time. Poor Polly Peachum is in quite a pickle – newly wed to her beloved Macheath, a famous highwayman; her parents are furious that she can no longer be of use to the family business, and decide the only solution is to kill Macheath for his money. Aware of this plan, Polly hides Macheath before ordering him away for protection. In a tavern, he is surrounded by dubious women, and enjoys flirting with them but discovers, too late, that two of them (Jenny Diver, Suky Tawdry) have been sent by Mr Peachum to capture him - he is taken to prison to await trial and be hung. Pregnant women come from near and far to claim him as their rightful husband, particularly a very persistent Lucy Lockit (daughter of the gaoler), while his wife Polly struggles to win him back. Morally Macheath should be hung, but the audience demands a happy ending and so the play concludes with the celebration of Polly and Macheath’s marriage.

It is a silly story, but one filled with vivid characters and popular folk tunes. To one side of the stage a small band, the City Waites, provide the music using authentic instruments. Led by a lively Roddy Skeaping on violin and bass viol, I thought the band was fantastic - rich in tone and character, a gentle purring accompaniment that adds depth to the narrative. The stage is appropriately decorated with beds and wooden carts, a clever and adaptable design from William Dudley. Big bosomed women hang around the edges, lurking in the bushes, waiting to pounce. It is quite a sight and gloriously romantic in the leafy setting of Regent’s Park.

Unfortunately on the night there were a few technical hitches with the microphones, aside from being rather distracting this also disrupted the flow of the drama, and swallowed up the occasional word or song lyric. On the whole though, I was impressed with the cast, especially considering the 32 degree heat - their energy was commendable.

Jasper Britton is a suitably stern Mr Peachum, and Janet Fullerlove is hilarious as his wife; she seems to revel in Gay’s wickedly naughty script. I loved watching the frantic catfights between Lucy (Beverly Rudd) and Polly (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) who certainly got the most laughs on the night. I saw Rudd last year in the Regent Park’s version of Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’, she was outstanding then and is just as brilliant here... with a buoyant attitude and a belter of a voice, she conquers the expansive Regent’s Park stage; there is so much to look at and yet I always feel gripped by her presence on stage. Spencer Longhurst, bright faced and wide eyed as the innocent but crafty little Polly, acts with great assurance and in addition has a bright soprano voice that soars in this theatre.

What this play lacks in excitement, it makes up for in charm: Regent’s Park is the loveliest of settings, and ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ is a witty, sometimes neglected work sure to provide a pleasant summer’s evening out.

The Beggar's Opera continues until 23 July, book here.

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