Review – The Threepenny Opera, National Theatre

Friday 27 May 2016

CcsbDaMXEAAsGf5Wasn’t expecting the Drum Revolve.

Phil saw a preview of The Threepenny Opera on the very day he’d received a begging letter from the National’s Artistic Director, Rufus Norris asking for contributions to the £350, 000 he’s trying to raise to revitalise the Olivier Theatre’s 40-year-old stage machinery which was then “cutting-edge technology” but is now “literally grinding to a halt”.

He assumed this was irony. Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s tale, in a new adaptation by Simon Stephens, has placed the story in pre-coronation London and features a raggle-taggle of beggars. One of the beggars, Rufus Norris, was not on stage, he was seated at the back of the stalls overseeing his production with NT ex-AD Sir Nicholas of Hytner.

So, with all that money to raise and a huge cast one might expect the production to look a little bit cheap in its settings and the Drum ground to a halt. Well, we were correct on the first matter but the revolve was in constant use and the Drum drop/raise was even brought into operation briefly.

Vicki Mortimer’s set – such as it is – strips the stage back to the bare walls where ladders, steps and wooden frames covered with torn or untorn paper rest untidily before they are trundled around to form the locations. Characters slice or burst through these paper walls throughout. One tall, paint splashed set of stairs on wheels – presumably from the scenery painting room, from the bygone days when the National used to do proper scenery – is recycled as part of the setting. It all looks rather cluttered. Strangely it works. Almost.

Chief beggar wrangler, J J Peacham (Nick Holder, fantastic as ever) makes a decent living off his unfortunate charges, he’s rather piqued when his daughter Polly (Rosalie Craig) stays out one night with Captain Macheath (Rory Kinnear) a ne’er-do-well and part-time serial killer who has already had a liaison with Peacham’s wife (Haydn Gwynne). He’s in such a huff he uses his influence to get him hanged and also indulges in a touch of cross-dressing, which left Phil thinking of Peter Kay’s Geraldine McQueen character throughout Act 2.

Unfortunately the best and most well-known song “Mack the Knife” is dispensed with in the opening scene, though it’s delivered by the wonderful, sonorously-voiced George Ikediashi (AKA Le Gateau Chocolat). Though “Surabaya Johnny” is squeezed in later.

Gwynne makes a big impact, her angular contortions heightened by a tight-fitting red dress and she does a spectacular albeit frightening-to-watch run up those scenery-painting stairs. Whinger-Approved Debbie Kurup as Lucy, and Craig’s Polly indulge in a spectacular “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” sing-off in Act 2. Lucy’s father, Chief Inspector ‘Tiger’ Brown (Peter de Jersey), gives an impressive on-stage demonstration of noose-making. Phil feared it would later be put to use which would have been huge act of faith.

Sharon Small is absolutely splendid as the drug-riddled whore who is torn about betraying Mack and there’s a wonderful cameo from Matt Cross as forever smiling policeman. The police here rush around like the Keystone Cops and silent movies are referenced in another stunt when Kinnear – who is expressionlessly malevolent throughout – displays another massive act of faith.

If it feels a bit scrappy and messy at times it’s held together by the terrific cast and despite an occasional crude and childish need to shock it is sometimes very funny. To say it’s much, much better than the terrible Tim Curry version at the National thirty years ago would be to damn it with faint praise.

Awful Audiences Update
The women in front of Phil thought it acceptable to embark in a potentially lengthy conversation shortly after the performance began. The man next to them kept glancing yet said nothing, so, as usual it was left to Phil to shut the should-but-don’t-know-better selfish pair up.

Two women, blondish, mid forties(?) row D of the stalls on Tuesday 27th May. One was known as “Auntie Susie” to someone. Phil knows this as one was still texting “I’m at the theatre with Auntie Susie” as the actors walked on stage.

Probably long-sighted. The text size on her phone was enormous.

We almost know who you are…

If this is how some of the the National’s audiences behave there is no hope for the West End.





8 Responses to “Review – The Threepenny Opera, National Theatre”

  1. nic coen Says:

    I think someone should add Phil to the next honours list for services to theatre audiences, those of us who pay a small fortune (even for the cheap seats) to watch live theatre and find ourselves surrounded by those who can’t go 40 mins without stuffing their faces/texting /talking – they get seats in the middle of the row and will always be last to take their seats spilling the next stock up of food & drink over you or your coat ! Three cheers for Phil and his stand against these morons. Now can he sort out the theatre in cinema audiences as this lot are even worse !

    • Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

      Thank you.
      I used to be a regular cinema-goer but visits become less frequent these days. Theatre is catching up rapidly.
      Does AGT’s appalling policy of having drinks/food menus in the back of their seats fill you with the same horror as those cinemas that have been doing it for a while?
      The future looks like box sets from the chaise longue…

      • nic coen Says:

        Oh yes ! I’d forgotten about AGT . Having moved to darkest dampest Cornwall from west London I was surprised at how many cinemas there are down here but I found myself at the local MP s surgery having a militant moment when I found Cornwall never seemed to be included in ‘ national’ offers. I’d put in our postcode and our nearest venue would be in Devon 100 miles from us to the border of ! Now don’t know why I bothered as if I have to pay to endure this eating obsession I will end up murdering someone – do you know if it’s possible to drown someone in their xlarge fizzy drink ?
        The box sets are calling….!

        However I must thank you for the review of the Kenneth Cranham play amazingly it came to HFC Truro and I’d been dithering about going, your review decided me and so glad I went (matinée less morons !).

        Last time I saw Threepenny Opera was at The Gate in Dublin and Marianne Faithful sang (painfully).

  2. Ronni Says:

    I was at one of the previews for Threepenny Opera and had to suffer four possibly drunk hoorahs in the row behind who talked throughout. I conquered my English reticence enough to shush them but they looked at me as if I was the one being anti social. Why do these people go to the theatre if they want to talk?r

  3. Nic Coen Says:

    You have my sympathies. It makes you realize the full meaning of the word ‘ seethe’ when in these situations !

  4. Phil you should start begging for funds for a discreet death ray gun to zap the awful audience members. Just an idea.
    In preparation for seeing this show we went to RADA last night to see their production of the original Beggar’s Opera by John Gay. It’s fairly traditional and straightforward with some nice acting by the stars of tomorrow. Worth seeing to judge what Brecht and Weill worked from.

  5. sandown Says:

    The current RADA production of “The Beggar’s Opera” is indeed a delight.
    It is typical of the National Theatre to avoid putting on a British classic, and instead to revive Brecht’s Germanic bastard-Marxist version.
    No doubt this type of performance was also an attraction for the more boorish elements in the audience.

  6. Billy Says:

    What a wonderful review and what dazzling reader comments, from the Nigerian Viagra advert to “Sandown”‘s exquisite British Union of Fascists grumble – poor dear wanted the National to stage only musicals written by Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford…

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