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Musical by Nick Dear with music by Stephen Warbeck, after John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. Directed by Tim Supple, designed by Robert Innes-Hopkins, lighting by Paule Constable.
John Gay's celebrated 1728 The Beggar's Opera has been given a contemporary London setting to create a spectacular new piece of music theatre by playwright Nick Dear (whose version of Summerfolk continues in the Olivier repertoire) and the composer Stephen Warbeck, whose work includes the Oscar-winning music for Shakespeare in Love.
The murky world of organised crime is teeming with drug barons, corrupt politicians, gangland hoods, bent coppers and petty thieves. Behind the respectable cover of his South London pub, Peachum plies a successful trade in small-time scams. But his comfortable world is shattered by the charismatic gangster Macheath, who plans to take Peachum's daughter and move into even more dangerous territory to fulfil his ambitions.
Nick Dear's many theatre credits include The Art of Success at the RSC and subsequently at Manhattan Theatre Club, New York, which won the John Whiting Award 1986. Other plays include Zenobia, In the Ruins, Pure Science and Temptation, and adaptations of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, The Last Days of Don Juan and A Family Affair. His first feature film screenplay, Jane Austen's Persuasion, won five BAFTA Awards; other films include Dostoyevsky's The Gambler and Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. He has written the libretti for two operas, Siren Song (music by Jonathan Dove) and A Family Affair (music by Julian Grant), and two music theatre pieces, Food for Love (Theatre de Complicite) and Swansong (BBC Radio - Sony Award) with composer David Sawer.
Stephen Warbeck has composed extensively for the theatre; his previous work for the National includes An Inspector Calls, Machinal, The Day I Stood Still and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. He is Head of Music and Associate Artist at the RSC and has also written many scores for the Royal Court, including Mojo, Rat in the Skull and The Glory of Living (a collaboration with the NT Studio). In addition to his Oscar-winning score for Shakespeare in Love, his innumerable film and television scores include Mrs Brown, My Son The Fanatic, Quills, Dancer, Bramwell and five series of Prime Suspect.
Tim Supple is the Artistic Director of the Young Vic, where his work includes Grimm Tales, More Grimm Tales, Blood Wedding, Twelfth Night and As I Lay Dying. His other recent productions include Haroun and the Sea of Stories (Cottesloe), Tales From Ovid and The Comedy of Errors (both for the RSC).
OLIVIER Theatre Previewed 4 April, Opened 11 April 2000, Closed 10 June 2000
Extracts from the reviews:
"There was the Beggars' Opera in the 1720's, the Threepenny Opera in the 1920's, and last night the Villain's Opera on the big Olivier Stage at the National. John Gay's Newgate pastoral is reinvented in the shadow of the Dome at Greenwich, with Canary Wharf in twinkling silhouette... Well done the writers and director Tim Supple for trying to come up to date. And the designs of Robert Innes Hopkins are endlessly inventive and entertaining. But as a musical, the show is pretty dire, with far too many reverential nods towards Brecht and Weill. Instead of Bert'n'Kurt, we should have had more Chas'n'Dave. Stephen Wabeck is an accomplished theatre and film score composer, but songs are not his forte. Nor is Nick Dear any practised sort of lyricist. The dialogue zings and often stings as Captain Macheath tries to move into the big time, represented by, surprise surprise, Mr Big who lounges in the garden of England, his greenhouse in Kent... The playwriting is impressive. But I yearned for melody, or any sort of emotional charge in the musical side of things... the overall, cute view of villainy is much more pre-1960's than post-1990's." The Daily Mail
"At the start of the show, a mountainous black gangster in a posh overcoat thanks the management of this "luxurious gaff" (aka the National Theatre) for allowing his sort the run of facilities for the evening. Then he issues the audience with a warning. They'll be keeping an ear open for unflattering remarks and "there's a dark car park downstairs, where me and my colleagues will be delighted to discuss your criticisms" afterwards. Well, those are just about the only circumstances where they'd manage to extract many positive comments from me about this lacklustre reworking of John Gay's 18th-century Beggars' Opera... For the most part, it's almost shockingly unshocking. We've all become deeply familiar with the fact that the police collude with criminals and that the underworld and straight society are like satiric mirror images of each other. This show, directed with a surprising lack of pace or bite by Tim Supple, offers few new perceptions of these things... Dear's uninspired lyrics, which reach a nadir of awkward banality in the beggars' anthem against success-worshipping New Britain, are to set to music by Stephen Warbeck that is a bit of sub-this and a bit of sub-that, occasional trying for a vinegary Weill touch or aping his hectoring jab..." The Independent
"... The evening does not fulfil its own satiric aims, let alone those of The Beggar's Opera and Brecht's anti-capitalist spin-off, The Threepenny Opera. True, we get an updated version of the original opening number about the moral equality of lawyers, statesmen, priests and thieves. True, bad Peachum and horrid Lockit tell us they embody modern justice and, true, a huddle of homeless people, led by a virtuous baglady, sing about the awfulness of failing in "new Britain". But the key point - to paraphrase Gay, that poor villains are only aping respectable villains but are punished for doing so - goes missing. Partly that's the result of an over-larky tone, partly of straining the parallels between the 18th and 21st centuries, but partly of Dear's additions to Gay. Was it wise to introduce Clive Rowe as a sinister Mr Big with an anguished wife and a teenage daughter who absconds in principled protest at "your society"? Or bring on a politically correct policewoman who decides that crime pays, falls for Macheath, and goes drug-running with him? Anyway, the evening moves to its close in a muddle of sentimentality, spoof cops and robbers, and abstruse dream-effects - and, given the boldness of the enterprise, that's a pity." The Times
"We're used to bad musicals in the commercial theatre. Now they're starting to invade the National Theatre as well. Indeed, one spends much of the time while watching this trundling behemoth of a show wondering why anyone ever thought the world needed an update of The Beggar's Opera when Brecht and Weill did the job perfectly well... As a piece of storytelling the show is feeble: it starts out as a by-the-book update of Gay, and then meanders into a mix of drug-snitching estuary fantasy and cod-Shakespeare. Dear starts out with Macheath and ends up with Macbeth. Even musically the show is a non-starter. Where Gay had traditional ballads and Brecht had Weill, here we have sawn-off tunes by the normally reliable Stephen Warbeck that flit by unnoticed. And hard though Tim Supple's production strains to create an atmosphere of louche naughtiness, it never gets beyond cartoon decadence... The show, which treats the gangland ethic as a huge joke, seems a scandalous waste of the National's precious resources." The Guardian