The chorus, whose moves were ingenious and their blocking endlessly imaginative. And they performed with aplomb, constantly lifting the show. Pictures: Emily Wood

The Beggar’s Opera

Opera Warwick

Warwick Arts Centre


I took myself to Opera Warwick’s freshly updated staging of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera with some trepidation. The PR promised ‘a student-arranged jazz inspired opera, building on John Gay’s original work (1728), and something of a departure from our standard repertoire'. What horrors awaited?

It took a few moments to hear the explosive opening band number, join in the spirit and realise just how imaginative and polished a show this was going to prove. Gay (1685-1732; so he died just four years later) is usually deemed to have written something of a mishmash, a medley of a popular, satirical ‘ballad’ opera – something like a ‘Musical’ of his day. The music includes some by sundry others, the most important of whom was the long-lived Johann Pepusch (1667-1752), a notable – and then very famous - rival to Handel.

But once it got a fair wind, it was soon evident that this might easily be one of Opera Warwick’s most cleverly conceived, well-directed shows since its foundation. One is all the more impressed, as in previous years, because the university has no music department. Year in, year out, chemists, economists, mathematicians, linguists, a veritable pot-pourri of departments who have often, as this time round, proved nearly on a par with London’s top Music Colleges.

The whole extravaganza certainly gained vividness and punch from the band, who are worth categorizing: alto and baritone saxophones, trumpet, drums, guitar, double bass, keyboard (the Musical Director). They scarcely once overpowered; rather their proficiency, rhythmic perfection, assertion and drive – but also sensitivity - gave the production remarkable, welcome zip.


The inexhaustible band, with saxophones and trumpet to the fore

It was jazz indeed, of various types, but very gratifying to hear such driving, shrewd musicianship. There were at least two vocals where the accompaniment reduced to just a trio of keyboard, bass and guitar, and these were particularly magical. Instrumental solos were glorious, with alto sax (James Hollis) and trumpet (Laurie Duncan) especially standing out. But as an ensemble, beautifully disciplined and meshing expertly together, they were outstanding.

The whole affair was set in a tavern or pub (full of activity, like a Hogarth drawing), around the round tables of which the scintillating group numbers were ingeniously enacted. Indeed, before exploring the mostly terrific lead roles, one has to first applaud the set piece numbers, with the whole cast frolicking and gambolling with astonishing skill.

The direction of these scenes was so imaginative and genuinely exciting – something that is quite often a muddle in too many productions – that it took one’s breath away. They danced, cavorted, intertwined so skilfully, one was awed by their sheer adroitness. Chats, witticisms, conversations and greetings were at no point naff and vapid looking. Everyone knew how to move, where to go, how subtly to interact. The girls played card games with the aplomb of Act 3 of Carmen. Every small detail, even each move, looked precisely rehearsed.

That has to be down to the strikingly perceptive, motivating director, Tara Noonan; and to a degree, to all cast members. Doubtless a mixture of both. It was notable that when individuals from the support cast had a short speech or exchange, they proved just as proficient and capable as the leads.   

As to those leads. Were there any weak links, drooping moments, serious drawbacks? Perhaps surprisingly, none whatsoever. Rhiannon McDonagh as the Beggar (in fact the ‘author’), coated in what looked like No. 5 makeup and grey/black smears that rendered her dirty-faced and rather endearing, seemed easily intelligent enough to craft a script. Edward Daly (the initially affable but later scheming, rather nattily dressed Peachum) started the show with a soliloquy well enough spoken to succeed in setting the whole show off on the right foot. As he later remarks, with a delightful irony typical throughout Gay’s script, ‘The comfortable estate of widow-hood is the only hope that keeps up a wife’s Spirits.’

mrs peachum

The entertaining and impossible Mrs. Peachum (Niamh Murphy)

A major part of the success of this production was the extent to which it managed to incorporate large chunks of Gay’s original into the body of spoken and indeed sung text, rather than veering off on its own path. You couldn’t realistically hear it all; but a good deal came across.

Mrs. Peachum (the characterful Niamh Murphy) provided a boisterous, bosomy character who alternated between rather splendid stentorian utterance and slightly dropping her voice, as others in the cast did somewhat too low for the audience. But fun. Flirty, sexy, busty, she reacts, to some extent, like her husband when Polly announces her love for the highwayman Macheath, but is funny with it: ‘If you must be married, could you introduce no boy into the family but a highwayman?’; or ‘We haven’t had a single murder in the last seven months’.

But not only did Murphy supply two very well delivered, quite forceful yet attractive arias of her own; she has a delicious duet with Polly too; and all the intermittent duets were quite a highlight. Meanwhile her husband, the jumped-up paterfamilias, mortified: ‘Love him! Worse and Worse! I thought my daughter had been better bred; and, indignant but not unwitty: ‘Polly is tinder, and a spark will at once set her aflame. Married!’

These are just samples of the slick way the writer (unattributed: the Director and others in the team?) fed large swathes of Gay’s original text into both the libretto and the songs. ‘Look’ee, wife’; ‘fine ladies’; ‘may my pistols misfire’. Take Macheath’s exquisite ‘My heart was so free it roved like the bee till Polly by Passion requited’ – an indication that his universal sexual conquests and playing the field finally may be ending; and a host of other gems, each kind of classics of 18th century humour: ‘What a fool is a fond wench! Polly is most confoundedly bit. I love the sex.’ And in contrasting mode: ‘If the heart of man is deprest with cares The mist is dispelled when a woman appears…’

The drawback, constantly, is the use of mikes by Warwick Opera for the singing; though kept to a moderate level (Thomas Bruce) they’re often unnecessary, and they should be. They were not used for the speech, and that was almost universally audible. Many of these young singers can project perfectly well on their own. And if not, they should be taught to, or teach themselves to. It could perhaps be said that in this show, they were wholly appropriate. But the criticism remains: some of the songs were to a degree distorted.


Dominic Sterland as a proundly sympathetic Macheath, the sometime highwayman now stuck in Newgate Prison and doomed to be hanged at Tyburn

Macheath is not just an amiable rogue. He is, we discover, capable of tenderness. And partly because he managed to hit this off right, one applauds the sterling performance of Dominic Sterland in the role. He takes the show by storm from his first entry, and presents a Macheath who is, as he must be, both brazen and sensitive. His black leather jacket seemed usefully apt (you might have thought we were in West Side Story). His voice, including one Sinatra-like aria, had a remarkable tenderness to it, so that every time he launched into whatever kind of jazzed up aria it was, he captured the mood and lent it a poignant feel even before he got thrown into prison (a very funny piece of property – bars wheeled about in comic fashion). It’s a wan prospect: ‘Whenever you think about marriage, I’m thinking about hanging.’

He may be a highwayman, but he’s a renegade with a heart of gold. And no fool either. That’s what you’re meant to think, and Sterland seemed to reach right inside the various aspects of the character. He’s happy to cheat on a wench. And he’s quite happy to relieve you of your purse; but no killer. His stage command, right through, was gloriously assured. A wonderful presence, whether singing or speaking.

There’s one very stylishly directed scene when Macheath appears in the bar and all the girls (specially) rush to be near him. You’d think he was Carmen’s bullfighter Escamillo. It was done by two contrasting blocks in sequence, each masterfully directed and hilariously enacted. Blocking, it has to be said, whether small groups or a whole barful, was one of the many skilful, shrewd pieces of team management that emanated from the Director.

Polly (Abigail Taylor) was a delight every time she opened her mouth, especially to sing. She was lucid, each consonant and every note felt spot-on, her tone had a marvellous and affecting light quality to it. One of the nice things was the way the score took her occasionally up on high – as indeed is an attractive, touching feature for Polly in the original Gay opera. One solo was a deeply touching Blues. She had character; she had bite. And when Lucy Lockit turns up, and they have a bust-up right in front of the hapless Macheath in his cell (‘How happy could I be with either Were t’ther dear charmer away!’ and ‘Your father’s perquisites for the escape of prisoners must amount to a considerable sum’), it was very funny indeed, as it is in the original.

Lucy (Rebekah Lally) has a very appetising, charming voice too, as she proved with two or three solos in quick succession, each one charming - and one, taken very slowly, with lulling reduced band, meltingly beautiful. She gives as much as she gets, and has no intention of being worsted, even though she patently senses that she may be abandoned. But the other major role, apart from a rather nicely played, randy, excitable and attractively innocent Filch from Reuben Wilmshurst), that proved a joy for its wit and irony, snakiness, sneering and crookedness, was Lucy’s rogue of a father, Mr. Lockit. Somehow he had it all: a sly cockney accent, puffing cheeks, grinding mouth, wrinkled look, a kind of hunched drooping shoulder, twitching hands. Every utterance made you shiver. A rotter who makes Macheath look like a saint. He could play Caliban tomorrow.

lucy and polly

A loverlorn pair - and scratching rivals. Lucy Lockit (Rebekah Lally) and Polly Peachum (Abigail Taylor), both viewing Macheath as their husband

Time and again the solos are just what they were meant to be: Gay modernised. Once or twice the music slips into what is almost a pastiche of Gay. And there is at least one scrumptious moment when it directly imitates Purcell. All credit, then, to Theo Caplan, who besides controlling the keyboard part was the Arranger, seemingly, of the whole thing. His achievement was a triumph. As jazz, it was varied and constantly imaginative, even when the chorus slipped into do be do be do numbers.

So back to the ensemble. Their bar routines were superbly managed. When they broke into dance (like at the end) it was impeccably, and hugely intelligently enacted: everyone seemed to know what everyone else was doing; so there were countless perfect and often very amusing moves; it was like an inspired kaleidoscope.

When they opened their mouths to sing, it was stylish, not tentative. The lights, incidentally (Todd Olive), had a very artful way of focusing on small spots on the stage, for solos like those of Polly, Lucy or Macheath. The costumes (Lizzy Plant) were simply glorious. If they thought up their own, they could not have been more entertaining and varied. All detail that made this show a highly enjoyable hit.

Roderic Dunnett


Index page Warwick Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre