The Buskers Opera, Park Theatre, London ★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

In 1728, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera debuted. A satirical sideswipe at the political figures of the day, it was one of the nascent breed of operas that dropped the sung recitative between arias, instead of mixing songs with spoken dialogue. In that regard, while Gay did not invent the musical theatre genre, the success of his work certainly helped kick start it.

These days, the characters of Macheath, Polly Peachum, Jenny Diver et al are more well known through the lyrics of ‘Mack the Knife’ from the Kurt Weill adaptation The Threepenny Opera, the most famous of several attempts to update the original, and which is shortly to be revived at the National Theatre.

Dougal Irvine’s latest attempt to bring Gay’s classic into the modern era starts off with a potted summary of the play’s history, recited (as is the entire musical) in rhyming couplets with ever-so-slightly dodgy scansion.

Throughout, Irvine’s book and lyrics openly acknowledge the artifice of the satirical play – at one point, a character opens a monologue with the words: “I’m not sure if I should be talking to you lot.” It’s a technique that is mined for comedy throughout, but also fits into Irvine’s (and Gay’s) message that the satire involved is about us, the audience, and the world we live in. Were it not a phrase that the politicians the play pokes fun at had already adopted, it might almost suggest that we are all in this together.

The modern day trappings relocate the world of Macheath to London in 2012, as the Olympics are getting underway and the capital’s poor are being swept aside so that the jocund, tousle-haired, bumbling mayor Lockitt (a majestic Simon Kane) can present an image of success to the world, in collusion with media mogul Peachum (David Burt).

A constant thorn in the political elite’s side is a group of protestors, the 99 Percenters, led by George Maguire’s busker Mac and his girlfriend (then wife), Peachum’s rebellious daughter Polly, played by Lauren Samuels as the sort of flighty, slightly bonkers Trustafarian idealist that anyone who’s spent any time in London media will recognise instantly.

Throw into the mix Macheath’s dalliance with Mayor Lockitt’s daughter Lucy (a hilariously fast-talking Natasha Cottriall) and a pregnancy plot that sets Lucy and Polly in opposition to one another, and it’s easy to see why the personal relationships have been strong enough to hang the satire upon for four centuries.

And in truth, it is in the personal rather than the political that Irvine’s satire is at its most biting – from ‘Love Song’, which undercuts Polly’s romanticism with Mac’s more cynical take on the industry behind hit singles, to Cottriall’s fast-talking delivery of ‘Do You Want a Baby, Baby?’ (a familiar number to anyone who has heard Julie Atherton’s recording or seen her cabaret performances, which have slightly more polish than here but lose the wider context that illuminates the song’s hilarious patter) there is a sense that dealing with messed-up sex lives is something that plays to Irvine’s strengths.

In contrast, the machinations of the mayor and the media mogul are rather less effective. And while placing events in the London of 2012 immediately means that The Buskers Opera will not age as rapidly as a play set in our immediate contemporary times, it also dulls the edge of the wit.

Anna Kezia Williams’ designs, under the directorial gaze of Lotte Wakeham, keeps everything deliberately low-tech, what set there is being all scaffolding and cardboard boxes. But while taking the same approach to the protestors’ clothing and sign-making fits in with the Occupy movement aesthetic, one can’t help feeling that Peachum’s world of news headlines deserves a better treatment than headline mock-ups crudely painted onto fabric sheets.

Similarly misfiring is Lucie Pankhurst’s choreography, which is often rather too laboured and over-eager for the space. It is notable that many of the numbers in Act II, when the ensemble has calmed down substantially, allow the quality of Irvine’s musical and lyrical craft to shine through all the more. The second act also gives an opportunity for John McCrea’s Filtch, a Peachum employee who has long harboured a love for Polly, to come to the fore – a performance which marks McCrea out as a performer to watch for in future.

There are times where the constant rhyming strains at the edges – in a verse detailing the influence of corporate sponsorship on the Olympic movement, a couplet suggesting: “Buy a laptop from Acer/You could win an eraser” is a particular low point. But overall, this is a piece which showcases Irvine as a craftsman of musical theatre like no other, who can mix heartfelt emotion and comedy and make it look easy. It may not be the best production of the year so far, but it may just be the best new musical.