At first glance John Gays The Beggars Opera, with its exploration of the lower classes and its emphasis on entertainment, would seem ideal fare for a long, balmy summers evening in the outdoors. It does, however, require a lot of different elements to come together in order to prevail, and whether they are ever likely to do so in such a large open air area as Regents Park remains a matter of debate.
Dramatically, the work is given every opportunity to shine as it paints a seedy, sordid picture of the eighteenth century underground world of whores, thief catchers, jailers and highwaymen. William Dudley’s set vividly describes a cruel world that people enter with no choice and can only escape from through death. Gallows dominate the stage, with interwoven garlands scarcely masking their brutality. People dance around maypoles with prisoners chains rather than ribbons, and a judges chair stands aloft overseeing all. Songs are sometimes accompanied by offbeat, but not distracting, visual effects, and scene changes are carried off with movement and dance.
Yet, even acknowledging that this is not Handel or Puccini, it feels as if Lucy Baileys production has severely underestimated the importance of the music. It would be wrong to dismiss the cast simply as actors rather than singers, but their approach to executing the songs feels unsuited to bringing out the sheer beauty of the tunes that Gay utilised in his work. Everything from Legally Blonde to Madama Butterfly demands strong singing and acting, but these vocal performances feel focused upon expression and gesture to the detriment of strict tonal quality. As we witness the brilliance and elegance of these simple songs, we realise just how much they deserve, and need, to be sung purely and straight.
Some parts do fare better than others. As Mr Peacham Jasper Brittons gestures to the audience bring enough to his songs for these to prevail, while Janet Fullerloves performance is so overwhelming in its caricature of Mrs Peacham that that is enough. Polly Peachams songs, however, really need to hit ethereal heights, and while Flora Spencer-Longhurst has a pleasing voice, elegantly sung phrases are all too often rounded off with a breathy vocal gesture. The six musicians of The City Waites, who play everything from violins to whistles, prove highly accomplished, but with both they and the singers necessarily amplified for the outdoors, the output never quite feels as if it is getting to the heart of the music.
Unfortunately, the musical weaknesses also undermine the dramatic impact to an extent. The scenes with Macheaths gang and the whores go through all of the right motions to portray drunken, hedonistic revelry, but have little effect because the singing needs to be as musically strong as it is riotous. When Captain Macheath is arrested the silence that descends should create a heart stopping moment because of its stark contrast with the heady atmosphere that has preceded it, but its hard to feel much here.
Another reason why these scenes may seem rather held back is that we are being too encouraged to feel sympathy towards the characters that we see. Of course, it is neither fashionable nor right to mock those who have little in life, but Gays work was surely aimed at lower as much as upper class audiences. As a result, the act of sending these people up was the act of empathising with them and of laughing at oneself. Much of this seems to be lost with a more sensitive approach.
The second half does improve immensely as the scenes get tighter, the characters become more developed, and the notion of this being an opera that has to follow certain rules is effectively indulged in. It is also aided by a star performance from Beverly Rudd who throws herself so completely into playing the buxom Lucy Lockit, and whose desperate attempts to win Captain Macheath are as skilfully managed as they are hilarious. Overall, however, this production may pull all of the correct levers dramatically, while only pressing some of the right buttons emotionally.