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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Threepenny Opera
Olivier Theatre      Summer 2016

In The Threepenny Opera Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill created that quite rare thing, an unquestioned classic that is also totally available and entertaining. 

The present adaptation by Simon Stephens and production by Rufus Norris are not classic fine at their best but lacking in energy and anarchic spirit during the too-long stretches when not at their best. 

As ever with Brecht the plot is of least interest, largely just a skeleton to hang his social comment and Weill's songs on. King of thieves and murderers Macheath runs afoul of king of beggars Peachum largely through seducing Peachum's thoroughly willing daughter, and not even Mack's close friendship with the police chief and the police chief's daughter seem likely to save him from the gallows. 

It can come as little surprise that Macheath and the others are presented less as outlaws than as the highest representatives of capitalism, and Rory Kinnear captures that side of Mack perfectly, dressed and carrying himself like a prince-of-the-City banker and stashing his booty in offshore accounts.

(Director Norris and designer Vicki Mortimer have moved the play from Brecht's imaginary Victorian era to something like an imaginary 1950s in a parallel universe where it is a new king's coronation that provides the deus ex machina ending.) 

What's missing or all too infrequent in Kinnear's performance and the production as a whole is the mix of naughty delight and demonic energy that should bring Macheath into at least the foothills of the mountains of Falstaff and Richard III. 

When Kinnear and the production in general are not at their best, they are stodgy and pedestrian. 

Always at her best, and in danger of running away with the show, is Rosalie Craig as Polly Peachum. Dressed and bespectacled like an out-of-her-depth Su Pollard, Craig makes it clear that this Polly is fully a match, in deviousness and ruthlessness, for any of the men around her. 

Craig is also the best singer in the company, and her chilling Pirate Jenny rightly stops the show, almost matched a few moments later by her Barbara Song. 

Sharon Small's Surabuya Johnny, despite having one of the show's best melodies, pales by comparison, and too few of the angry choric-comment songs really register. 

Taking a cue from Brecht's own language, Simon Stephens makes liberal use of obscenity, and if you have an aversion to the common scatological four-letter word (or its British five-letter variant) brace yourself to hear it a lot. A lot.

(I have no moral aversion to it, but after a while it becomes a boringly lazy way to an easy laugh or bit of shock.) 

Stephens' versions of the lyrics lie somewhere between the singable but inauthentic and the literal but unsingable. The chorus numbers are further hampered by some very muddy enunciation, and any time more than two people are singing you are likely to catch less than half of the lyrics. 

Norris's direction acknowledges Brecht's call for open theatricality with minimal sets moved about as we watch, and the Oliver's multilevel revolve makes its once-a-decade appearance for a totally pointless 30-second effect. 

But, a couple of the songs aside, the performance style, like too many of the individual performances, lacks the sharp edge the play demands, and both the big dramatic moments and an out-of-nowhere attempt at a slapstick chase scene fall flat. 

Elsewhere in the cast Nick Hodder has strong moments as Peachum and Haydn Gwynne not quite as many as Mrs. Peachum, but no one else makes much impression.

Gerald Berkowitz

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