Sunday, 22 March 2009


21/03/09, the Rose, Kingston.

A new theatre in a development between Kingston's spectacular 1930s Town Hall and the river. A pleasant enough glass-walled foyer, with metal staircases up to the circle. The auditorium more or less circular, with seating on three levels in a horseshoe and (this is a gimmick, surely) cheap seats on the floor at the front (bring your own cushion). I seem to remember the publicity made reference to Shakespeare's Globe, and Peter Hall lent his name to the enterprise, but it doesn't work that well as a performance space: we felt detached from the action even though we were in the first circle just round to one side, and there was the usual difficulty with a theatre this shape of hearing the actors when they turned away from you.

Also, alas, it was less than half full (and on a Saturday night, too). The place had to be bailed out by the council in January, a year after opening, and it'll have to do better than this show if it's to survive long-term.

The company is Australian, the director Max Stafford-Clark of Out of Joint fame. The idea is they're a shiploard of convicts in 1812 or thereabouts, performing the Beggar's Opera en route to Australia. So you get the Beggar's Opera, or most of it, but with added social commentary on the criminal/political underclass of the early 19th century and some anachronisms in the shape of modern pop songs (the play opens with all ten cast sitting on stage and singing Sailing...).

We felt the framing device betrayed a lack of confidence in the core material. Why not just do the Beggar's Opera straight? The scenes from John Gay's original seemed rather perfunctory and largely misfired; the modern songs had far more energy than his originals and raised a smattering of applause, which none of Gay's did. But then again, as D said, the framing scenes were equally perfunctory and one learnt only the barest minimum about the player-convicts. Two were "politicals", sentenced to transportation for seditious pampnlets; a couple were clearly whores; one, the "director", was a gay actor and elderly rent-boy sentenced after being found pleasuring a man in an alley off Seven Dials -- since the man was a judge, and therefore beyond the law, the actor was the one who copped it, falsely accused of stealing a watch.

The set was simple: a black back wall of mesh panels, with a sloping thrust stage coming down through a gap in the middle. When not performing the cast sat on boxes and bales with their backs to the wall. All ten of the cast were on stage throughout (except when they left briefly for a quick change -- there was much doubling, both among the convicts and among Gay's characters). Several were singers who could act (including Polly Peachum, who had a wonderful voice, and Macheath, who also had a good voice but couldn't in fact act and looked deeply uncomfortable throughout) and all of them played instruments (a couple of fiddles, a snare drum, a zither, a squeeze-box).

I took agin the production at the outset, as soon as I realised everyone was wearing far too much make-up, designed to make them look as grimy and unprepossessing as possible (except Lucy Lockett and Polly Peachum, of course, who wore lashings of eye make-up and in Lucy's case a great deal 0f cleavage). A's rather damaging question during the interval was: "Is this am dram?" It wasn't, but there was a lot of gurning, silly accents and general flouncing around which mostly, alas, fell flat. Much fun was clearly meant to be had with the scenes towards the end of the first act when the girls pretend to be men to make up the numbers and then the men play women in the scene of Macheath's entrapment.

We left at the half. Which was probably a good thing. It takes a long time to get back from Kingston.

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