The Villains' Opera by Nick Dear, music by Stephen Warbeck. The National Theatre, 15 April 2000
The NT, under Tim Supple's expert direction, staged Nick Dear's "The Villains Opera" with panache. Like John Gay's The Beggars' opera of 1728, upon which it is closely based, it is full of 'in-jokes, catchy and fun' with lots of topographical references to South East London, and the genteel, leafy countryside of Kent 'beyond the M 25' - very amusing to those of us from the area, but perhaps less so if you hail from Kingsbury or Newbury?
Yet, despite all the artistry brought to bear, something is missing. The original Beggars' Opera was a vehicle for political satire and social comment. Theatre at all times, and perhaps at its best, can be a place for opening up discussions on topical issues. Nick Dear's reworking as The Villains' Opera revels in frothy surface and, despite references to real places, it remains a fantasy devoid of the menace of reality. A fascination with 'low life' stays stuck at the level of fun and undemanding entertainment. The distancing of serious concerns within the topographical is epitomised by having beggars congregate around the new North Greenwich Underground station. This polished, policed and exposed venue is as likely to provide shelter as The Dome to sprout daffodils on its slippery roof!
This Villains' Opera lacks the bite of satire. It provides a fun evening out but not serious theatre; plenty of verbal and visual entertainment but no thought provoking propositions. The music provided by Stephen Warbeck is rather bland and unmemorable and was somehow sidelined by the visual bombardment of the show and the effort needed to pick up the words of the lyrics so as not to miss any of the jokes.
Some marvellous acting performances grabbed the attention. Beverly Klein, dressed in a fire engine red skirt and fluffy, high-heeled pink slippers, gave a hilarious impersonation as the tipsy Mrs Peachum. John Gay's author was represented by Clive Rowe as Mr Big, larger than life and determined we would all enjoy ourselves. Of all the characters David Burt, as Peachum, created some darker undertones with his performance as the Mephistophelian crook, turning on charm in moderation when appropriate and ruthless menace when necessary.
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