It’s an opera, as George Ikediashi reminds us at the beginning and the end in his spectacularly deep speaking and singing voice. It is, therefore an interesting idea to make the band central to the action. Ingenious use of the revolve stage means that MD David Shrubsole is sometimes whizzed onto the stage playing his electric keyboard which is carefully “costumed” as a scruffy wooden early twentieth century pub-style piano. At times he is closer to the actors than they are to each other and the rest of the band moves downstage at times too.
Simon Stephens’s script, a very free adaptation of the original Brecht, is casually witty and pulls no punches in a piece about sex, violence, drugs and corruption. He rhymes “wanker” with “banker” for example and “sucker” with “fucker”. A family show this definitely is not. And we’re in 1930s London rather than Berlin with a lot of emphasis on the King’s forthcoming Coronation tour of the East End which suggests 1937 when George VI was crowned.
So far so good but the band makes a distinctly ragged start before settling into that strange, characteristic Kurt Weill sound with its metallic syncopation and quirky harmonies. Much of the singing, moreover, is focused on hammering out every word – and you can’t fault this show for clarity of diction – rather than on melodious music making. There are exceptions, of course. Rory Kinnear as the central, Macheath – lustful, criminal, exploitative but very charismatic – sings shakily at the beginning (first night nerves?) but by the time he reaches the second half he is in his stride and of course he’s one of the best actors of his generation. He more than captures the essence of the character: a mixture of bravado and self-interested fear, enhanced by real dignity at the end.
Rosalie Craig sings well as the feisty Polly Peachum, a fully fledged independent woman in this version, and she’s engaging as an actor, Haydn Gwynne as Mrs Peachum uses her long slender, red clad body to humorous effect as she develops her drunken, sex-crazed character and she sings almost better than anyone in the cast. Nick Holder, as Peachum, reworked by Stephens as a man of ambiguous sexuality, is very funny with his mood shifts between coyness and ruthlessness.
It’s a show with strengths, certainly, but there is something quite flat about it and the first half drags. The set is complex with lots of moving staircases, paper barriers to break though, wooden struts and masses of flags but it’s over fussy and you soon begin to wish there were more focus on the characters and less on gimmicks.