I managed to catch the end of the run of York University’s production of The Beggars Opera this afternoon. It’s a hugely ambitious concept with a couple of hundred people involved. The basic concept is that John Gay’s piece is being performed by inmates in a prison as part of their rehabilitation. Layered onto this is an obnoxious talk show host who is commenting on the proceedings from a sort of gutter conservative perspective. Add to this interpolations based on Lady Gaga, blues harmonica, ukulele and even a bit of Britten. Fights break out between the cast and have to be dealt with by the prison warden and staff. Equally, they intervene in over enthusiastic sexual encounters. It’s brave but it rather tends to overwhelm the piece at the centre.The performances have a similar kind of brave but “bridge too far” vibe too. There are some unqualified successes. Leighton Williams as a Lady Gaga Crook-Finger’d Jack bids fair to steal the show for example. Andrei Borissenko as the over stretched idealistic warden is also excellent. Elsewhere it’s a bit patchy. Some of this is because when push comes to shove the director, Gwen Dobie, doesn’t quite seem to trust her own concept. Bits of anomalous style break out in numbers where it might have been simpler and stronger to just go with that style rather than graft it onto something more akin to a traditional Beggar’s Opera. There’s no real musical core. The piece needs strong vocalists in three key roles; Polly Peachum, Lucy Lockit and MacHeath. Alison Campbell as Polly comes closest. She’s a decent young, classically trained lyric soprano. She struggled a bit in her upper register but vocally she was much the best thing on show. Kaili Kinnon, playing Lucy Lockit, has an interesting voice but her efforts to sound like a classical mezzo were only partially successful. A touch of the Lotte Lenyas might have worked wonders here. Emilio Vieira as MacHeath looked good and acted well but he simply didn’t have the vocal chops for the role. There are lots of ways to do this role. One doesn’t need to be James Morris but a certain vocal power and confidence is needed. It should also be noted that the small band; four strings, one multi-talented woodwind player and harpsichord, under conductor Floydd Ricketts were excellent.
It’s a student show and judged by that standard it’s a very creditable effort. I think it would have benefited by somewhat de-emphasizing the peripheral elements (especially the talk show host) and casting stronger singers in the lead roles.