first night

The Threepenny Opera

Rebecca Mackinnon gives a threepenny for her thoughts about DULOG's production of Bertolt Brecht's musical.

The Threepenny Opera by Brecht is very, well, Brechtian – and by that dint not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea. The concept of ‘verfremdungseffekt’ – the alienation effect – is very deliberate, and makes the audience aware that this is theatre, not life, and that it absolutely must be taken at this level, the effect of which is a disjointed and often incoherent collection of music, tragedy, comedy and politics, sexual and otherwise. DULOG’s latest offering took all of these disparate elements and pulled them together in a genuinely absorbing and powerful way.

A clear thematic concept was evident from the start with Joe Leather’s macabre Street Singer, and his eerie rendition of Mack the Knife with the frightening, vaudevillian cast trickling onto the stage in the background set the suitably dark tone for the rest of the show. Maddy Mutch’s choreography was instantly arresting – sensual, darkly sexual (helped along nicely by the scantily clad beauties in the shape of Hannah Howie, Hayley-Jane Doyle, Adele Pope, Daisy Newlyn and Harriet Bamford) and very imaginative.

The scene that followed the opening sequence was our introduction to Mr and Mrs Peachum, (Guy Hughes and Kate Hunter) the more than slightly unsavoury couple who teach beggars how to beg. Hughes, with an uncanny impression of Jack Sparrow, commanded the stage with his presence and a powerfully beautiful singing voice. Real leading man material – although slowing down slightly would prevent a few of his lines being lost. Hunter was an admirably convincing fishwife and drunkard, her strident voice ringing round the theatre to equal amusement and repulsion. The beggars were very carefully modulated caricatures, the Cheerful Cripple set against the Nervous Twitcher to great comic effect. The stunning make-up by Emma Cave and Maddy Mutch must be noted here – it highlighted these directorial choices to perfection.

We are made to wait quite some time before being introduced to Macheath himself, but it was well worth the wait. Andy Kempster played Mack with dazzling confidence and a distinct sexual energy that made his reputation as a womanising seducer quite believable. Having said that, his softly sensual way of speaking sometimes meant a few lines were lost, and he could do with a little more projection. His gang of sycophants (Doug Gibbs, Tom Wynter, Sam Kingston-Jones and David Pritchett) made a wonderful chorus, and although they were at times a little over-caricatured, even with the Brechtian ideal in mind, there were moments of brilliance. David Pritchett, in particular, in his first DULOG show, must be noted for his scene-stealing confidence and his languid, predatory performance. The Army song was extremely well executed – the powerful voices of the male chorus highly suitable. The background images of the horrors of war were a little didactic – they would have been far more in keeping with Brecht’s Mother Courage or The Caucasia Chalk Circle, which address war in a far less fleeting manner; the iconic image of the Vietnamese civilian at the moment of his death was far too serious a picture to be shown during such a short – and cheerful – song in a play not even pertaining to war, however satirical the sentiment of the song.

 However, the truly exceptional performance of the first half of the show came from Rebecca Collingwood as Polly Peachum. Angelic as always, we are utterly captivated by the adorable crosspatch – her petulant yet charming line, ‘I think it’s a sweet wedding’, was pitch perfect. Her song, Pirate Jenny, was quite simply one of the most hauntingly beautiful performances I have seen on a Durham stage. As she began to sing, her beatific white face was the only illuminated point, but as the song became more sinister, she was lit only by footlights that gave her a strangely demonic look. Kudos must go to Ian Wenkenbach for a lighting design that entirely complimented the power of this moment. Collingwood’s voice was at once powerful and subtle enough to grace a West End stage, and there was no applause as she ended only because it would have broken the spell.

In the second half of the show, we are introduced to Lucy (Maddy Mutch), another victim of Mack’s lies. Her lament was delivered in a husky alto with all the venom and hurt of a woman scorned, eerily accompanied by only a single keyboard. The dancers behind the highly atmospheric gauze performed what was evidently a very challenging dance with grace and aplomb – the choreography, as the lament became increasingly bitter, grew in its manic energy to great effect. However, the timing was slightly off and the four dancers, though clearly talented, failed to gel as a group and as a result synchrony was somewhat lost. Hannah Howie’s performance as yet another scorned woman, and one who eventually brings about Mack’s downfall, was simply outstanding. With a voice that could hold its own against any number of professionals and a dancer’s impeccable grace, she was deeply sensual and remarkably subtle, and her marriage of acting and singing in her performance was exemplary – something few actors ever achieve.

The ending of the show was typically Brechtian – I won’t spoil the ending but I will say that the way in which the atmosphere is broken is very much expected of a playwright who continually refuses to give an audience what they want. This was handled very well by director Jonnie Grande, with a sudden lighting change and highly stylised movements of the cast that jolted the audience out of any sentimental response, as they responded to the projection of ‘CHEER’ on the back wall. However, the choice to direct the cast to dance in a totally unchoreographed way was not one I could entirely understand – until that point I had felt absorbed in a dark 19th century world, and to be pulled back into the modern age was, I felt, a little too out of keeping with the show. However, this is personal taste only; I’m sure Brecht would have entirely approved of such an effective moment of theatrical distancing. The band, ably led by Seth Miall and Flo Cooper, was powerful and directed with great sensitivity and musicality, particularly evident in the overtures. Overall, the show is a triumph – intelligently directed and marvellously performed.


4 November 2010

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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