The Threepenny Opera, National Theatre ★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

There must be something in the atmosphere that has spurred artistic directors to stage adaptations of John Gay’s 18th century satirical The Beggar’s Opera. As the Park Theatre’s The Buskers Opera closes, the National is now reviving the Bertholdt Brecht/Kurt Weill adaptation, The Threepenny Opera, with a new translation by Simon Stephens.

Director Rufus Norris has cast Rory Kinnear as the charming, murderous criminal Macheath (aka ‘Mackie’ or ’Mack the Knife’), a war veteran who has evaded the law in part due to his exploitation of his relationship with the chief of police, Tiger Brown, being a former war colleague and lover.

As he gets involved with Polly, the daughter of local gangmaster Peachum, he begins to find the net closing in, and starts to rely on a succession of current and former sexual conquests in an attempt to avoid capture and the hangman’s noose.

Kinnear is best when dismissively leading his band of reprobate henchmen, a collection of comic performances that lift every scene they are in. But for the most part, his Macheath rarely exudes the insouciance suggested by the relationships his character has with others on the page.

In contrast, Rosalie Craig’s Polly, underestimated by both her parents and her new husband Macheath, proves herself to be the show’s true criminal mastermind, before the show reduces her once more to being a warring woman, bickering with Mackie’s other lovers, most notably Debbie Kurup’s Lucy Brown.

And it is in the hands of the show’s women that the musical numbers work best. Weill’s quasi-operatic numbers are performed with torrid beauty by Craig, Kurup and more especially Haydn Gwynne as Polly’s mother Celia (another woman in thrall to Macheath’s supposed, but absent, sexual magnetism).

The quality of their singing performances throws into contrast the performance of Sharon Small as Jenny Diver, a prostitute and another of Mackie’s ex-lovers.

While her portrayal gives the character a depth which Stephens’ coarse adaptation maybe does not deserve, her songs lack the precision and clarity of some of her fellow cast members, and the ‘Tango Ballad’ duet with Macheath is torpedoed by both her and Kinnear’s delivery.

As with many plays, it is the supporting cast that inspires the most playful interpretations. Nick Holder’s Peachum, a glorious grotesque, has all the charisma that a criminal leader needs, although his playing with gender roles (appearing in Act II in heels and a feminine wig) seems to serve mostly so that other characters can lob transphobic abuse in his direction to no great service to the plot.

In contrast, Jamie Beddard, who as Matthias is the most intelligent of Macheath’s gang, gets to use his disability and speech impediment as a source of comedy that feels empowering for him – and when Macheath expresses frustration with Matthias’ supposed incoherence at the play’s climax, it is a sign of how low he has sunk.

Vicki Mortimer’s designs are a literal deconstruction of theatre sets, with paper-thin flats moved around and even ploughed straight through. Paule Constable’s harsh, low-level lighting has echoes of theatrical limelights, further emphasising the deconstructivism and the artifice that is in every pore of The Threepenny Opera.

But ultimately, there’s more attention to constructing a world that is amusing to look at than there is on landing the satirical barbs that drove both Gay’s original and Brecht’s reworking. The result is an overlong, unsatisfying mess that is not without its moments, but which demonstrates that Rufus Norris’ tenure as the National’s artistic director has yet to find a breakout smash hit.