The Beggar’s Opera (1728) is the gift that keeps on giving. John Gay’s satire of London’s underbelly has never waned in popularity and was, of course, memorably adapted by Brecht/Weill into The Threepenny Opera (1928). Now it’s the turn of those Cornish mischief makers Kneehigh, whose 2014 updating of the piece returns to the capital as prescient and relevant as ever.
Gay created a story so grubby that it makes spectators long for a purifying warm shower. Carl Grose (writer) and Charles Hazlewood (composer) achieve the same effect here with their depiction of a venal, degraded world full of lying cheats, where even the good and innocent such as “pretty” Polly Peachum (Angela Hardie) wise up pretty quickly.
Her father Les Peachum (Martin Hyder) and his wife Mrs P (Rina Fatania, revelling in her “brains-behind-the-operation” role) run an expansive crime empire, which requires the services of that eternal criminal Macheath (Dominic Marsh) to do away with the upstanding mayor. Awkwardly, Polly has also just married Macheath in secret.
Michael Vale’s playfully industrial-looking set has layers of scaffolding and a slide, down which the exuberant cast hurl themselves with abandon. There’s a robust energy to Mike Shepherd’s production, which carries overtones of Arturo Ui and the Keystone Cops. Grose describes his vision as a “kind of end-of-the-world end-of-the-pier show” and, accordingly, a Punch and Judy show, that perennially creepy “entertainment”, flanks the action in a flurry of shouting and hitting.
Hazelwood’s wide-ranging score moves from plaintive to angry, with a lovely lament of “I’d do the right thing, if only I could” from Filch (Georgia Frost, terrific), the Peachums’ put-upon skivvy. Trouble is, no character here manages this.
Until June 15 (020 8741 6850, lyric.co.uk)