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Faced with a ragged, blood-red front-of-house curtain and the auditorium walls festooned with banners proclaiming such contemporary messages as “Keep your filthy tax out of my bedroom” and
“Hi-ho, back on the dole” the audience know immediately that this is no chocolate-box revival of Bertolt Brecht’s scabrously seductive 1928 triumph.
The pioneering Graeae theatre company, with their characteristic integration of disabled actors into productions incorporating sign language and audio description, bring a sharp edge of reality to this spoof portrayal of the jolly life of criminal folk. As they do so, they mirror the manners and morals of the “respectable” Establishment.
Brecht’s message — meals before morals and what is robbing a bank compared with running one — caused him to despair when The Threepenny Opera was first performed. The stark incongruity between his savage lyrics, here brilliantly updated by Jeremy Sams, and Kurt Weill’s bitter-sweet jazz rhythms left his original target Berlin bourgeois audiences leaving the theatre whistling the tunes, oblivious to the legion of real beggars on the streets.
But here, from the opening delivery of the famous Mack The Knife number — with the projected words describing the extortions, murders and rapes of our gangster hero — we are not allowed to settle back to enjoy an anodyne musical comedy.
It might be fun on stage but images of such recently deposed luminaries as Jimmy Savile and other fixers constantly remind us that the world is no comedy.
“Man of business” Jonathan Peachum who rules over London’s street beggars finds his future endangered by his daughter Polly marrying the notorious Captain Macheath. With the help of the police — as bent as everyone else — and the intended victim’s bevy of whores he plans to shop his unwelcome son-in-law and make his daughter a happy widow.
Garry Robson’s chair-bound Peachum enjoys life with all the bonhomie of a self-satisfied big-business tycoon while Milton Lopes’s Macheath treats the world, particularly its women, with an arrogant and ruthless sangfroid.
The trio of his female devotees, CiCi Howells’s Polly, her rival Natasha Lewis’s Lucy and the chief whore-betrayer, Amelia Cavallo’s Jenny, emerge triumphant.
They all give the songs the necessary ironic mix of romantic sentiment and gutsy reality.
Most of the company contribute to the on stage band in a production which captures the spirit of Brecht’s smash hit while bringing home truths of a world outside. There, unlike the show, there is no happy ending on offer.
Runs until April 12, box office: (0121) 236-4455 then tours, www.graeae.org
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