Kneehigh Theatre Company seems to specialise these days in quirky, brand new takes on famous stories. Working on the assumption that the audience knows the plot already, they give themselves free range to play with the play as much as they like…conjuring up treat after treat for theatre lovers. They don’t always know when to stop…but everyone is having so much fun, nobody really minds.
Their complete modern day reinvention of John Gay’s 18th century Beggar’s Opera is bold, brash and belligerent; as it assassinates those who indulge themselves in greed, corruption and murder. So no change there.
The hit man, Mac The Knife, is remodelled as Heathcliffe Keith McHeath who conducts the mafia shooting of the Mayor who is campaigning to clean up his town; thus leaving the way clear for the dodgy concrete magnate Les Peacham to grab power.
He has a wife…who is the star of the show. Rina Fatania is terrific fun as his common-as-muck misses; a pocket battleship in a leopard skin onesie with a great gob on her. She’s surrounded by pop up hoodlums in dark glasses and gabardines – one of which apparently ate his own parents at the age of three.
Also outstanding is Patrycja Kujawska who plays the Mayor’s widow as if a Polish breakfast waitress had wandered onto the set. Her vengeful violin screams through Charles Hazelwood’s amazingly adventurous and atmospheric musical score, joined by honky tonk piano, wah-wah guitar and musical saw in a hugely atmospheric cacophony of jazz, ska and disco – with a few gentle pastiche folk songs to cool the fever and a spot of geriatric rap to pour scorn on proceedings.
Kneehigh also return to their roots with some every clever puppetry. Fortunately the dead dog in the suitcase isn’t real, though Macheath’s brood of foulmouthed babies almost are.
But what I loved most about this production is the parallel presentation of a traditional Punch and Judy show. The totally traditional puppet show beautifully mirrors the flesh and blood action on stage. Punch abuses his wife, beats the policeman, defies the hangman’s noose, and connives with the corrupt crocodile…exactly as Macheath does. It’s a perfect match; a stroke of uncanny genius.
The show progresses in lively manner through a series of outrageous set pieces. The Slammerkin Club is seedy, sleazy and bi-sexsual. Polly Peacham’s apparent drowning has brave Angela Hardie hanging upside down, drenched to the skin and still able to sing. And the gallows scene is a cleverly worked cliché as Macheath teaches the hangman how to “tie the knot to slip the noose” to his own cost, whilst Punch does much the same.
The show may come across as carefully choreographed chaos, but Mike Shepherd’s direction is as solid as if he’s constructed it with a welding torch; driving it towards an ever louder and even uglier conclusion.
Ultimately the company became a victim of their own excess. The final explosion was so loud, it set off the theatre’s Star Trek-like alarms and the auditorium had to be evacuated. A fitting finale.
Visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk for information about Birmingham Rep.