“A charming production full of talent”
The musical legacy of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s vibrantly satirical ‘play with music’ The Threepenny Opera is a curious one. Its opening anthem, “Mack the Knife,” has subsequently gained far more acclaim and recognition as a jazz standard in English since its debut in 1928 Berlin. The sultry refrain still tells of the deliciously violent antics of the notorious Macheath — every bit as much a bloodthirsty criminal as a salacious womanizer — but the original Socialist criticisms of capitalism and societal greed inherent in the original context of the character have somewhat faded. However, in their current production of Weill and Brecht’s piece, The Attic Collective yank the socialism and social Darwinism back into focus with grandiosity and verve to spare.
The assembled talent has carefully chosen a threadbare aesthetic and a frantic tone, both of which are appreciated considering it’s nearly three-hour runtime. The blocking, choreographed by Dawn-Claire Irvine, is frenetic, with bodies and props being hurled around the stage with sometimes dizzying energy. The set, managed by Tony King, is almost completely empty, save the minuscule bandstand area and temporary furnishings wheeled on to create a sense of space, which is accomplished well. The band is led with both humour and talent by Simon Goldring, whose musical direction fits well into the play’s dingy background. The most remarkably funny aspect of the stagecraft is the use of projected slides to flatly assert location. Before most scenes, white typeface bluntly explains context, and briefly puts up an Edinburgh equivalent of where these London-set scenes might take place, eliciting many a laugh for their timing and matter-of-factness. Had these been paired with a more self-serious, pretentious production, they would seem tacky; had they been employed by a less dynamic, more straightforwardly silly group, they’d be out of place for their dry humour. But to their credit, The Attic Collective’s decisions like this strike exactly the right tone (more often than not), between gormless and grandiose, threadbare and thrifty, funny and frank.
Max Reid is excellent as the appallingly villainous Mr. Peachum, particularly for the bombast he brings to his first scene, directly after the chorus’s “Mack the Knife” introduction. Reid successfully guides the audience from the familiar sounds of the standard to the viciously satirical tone of the rest of the production, which is no easy feat. As (occasionally) the cruelty and pitch-black comedy of Brecht’s script might come off as too much to find funny, it is particularly commendable that director Susan Worsfold has chosen to emphasise the comedy wherever possible. Toby Williams, as a hapless and clueless beggar, is hilarious with excellent timing, and Hannah Bradley as Mrs Peachum displays a genuinely impressive talent for balancing daft operatic turns of plot and phrase with an accomplished singing voice and terrific stage presence. And this is all the first scene.
Charlie West’s Mack the Knife takes time to get used to, but ultimately shines as the play pushes his character farther and farther from the archetypal ladykiller/people-killer role. His singing is good, and well-suited to the choppiness of Brecht’s plotting, as some intentionally off-kilter scenes and character dynamics look and sound more grating than polished. Given the tone of the production, these are presumably meant to be that way. West also displays nice comedic timing, but the truly gifted comedic dynamic was found more frequently among his criminal posse: Lewis Gribben, Elsa Strachan, John Spilsbury, Mark O’Neill and occasionally Conor McLeod. They all display real camaraderie and genuinely funny quips whenever present: another respite given the sometimes exhausting length of the proceedings.
Mack’s various women, played by Kirsty Punton, Megan Fraser and Sally Cairns, are characterised well, and each command the stage when given the opportunity. Special note goes to Cairns’ exquisitely gauche costume. In fact, the behind-the-scenes decisions are some of the most impressive aspects of the show: the use of the King’s Theatre’s actual boxes during a brothel-based interchange in particular is an inspired choice, delivering further hilarity.
The political and societal implications, are however, noticeably muddled, from the greediness and homoeroticism within head of police Tiger Brown (Andrew Cameron), to the jarring humour on display while Mack languishes in a prison cell waiting to be hanged by the distinctly humourless guard (Adam Butler). The spaces crafted by mime and sparse prop work, including a very funny use of a ladder as all-things-jail-call, but frequently have their implied rules broken, from doors switching to windows, walls vanishing entirely, locks fitting into keyholes where previously there was nothing, and entire crowds miraculously appearing and disappearing: the staging too often does not make any sense. Granted, these are aspects of Brecht’s dismantled view of theatricality in general, but when the plot twists and turns so freely it would have help to define spaces a little bit more.
Overall, The Threepenny Opera is a charming production full of talent and featuring some particularly inspired choices and aesthetics. There could be a little more there in the way of clarity, but hey, it’s Brecht. Most charmingly, it gives a whole lot of context for the flawless “Mack the Knife” standard itself, and for a superfan like myself that’s welcome. And if you weren’t a fan of the song beforehand, you will be once the curtains have closed.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 15 September)
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