Fresh from my tutorial on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera – the 1727 inspiration for Weil and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera – I was incredibly excited to take my place with the other audience members in the front quad at Wadham, an excitement that just about remained with me for the duration of this romp through London’s criminal underworld.
Threepenny Opera is the story of Macheath ‘Mac the Knife’ (Oscar Hansen), evading all consequences of his criminal ways by maintaining a delicate relationship with Sherriff Brown (Samuel Dunnett). However, Mac is placed in jeopardy by one of his wives, Polly Peachum (Emelye Moulton) whose parents Mr. and Mrs. Peachum (Emma-Ben Lewis and Indyana Schneider) want to see Mac put away for the good of their own crooked business.
What is most striking about Poppy Clifford and Louise Mayer-Jacquelin’s production is their use of space, spanning the full breadth of Wadham College, both inside and out. Highlights of setting include the Peachum’s shop scenes taking place in a stairwell, and Polly’s wedding to Macheath in a ‘stolen stable’ set outdoor and lit from above by ensemble members standing in an elevated paved garden. The design is minimal but charming, with a bunch of cardboard boxes brought on by Mac’s gang, on which are written ‘stolen piano’, ‘stolen lamp’ and later ‘stolen table.’ Signs are also put to good use – the flapping banner, ‘Threepenny Opera’, which the cast arrange themselves below the first time we see them, looks particularly striking in the dark. The make up is incredibly effective, creating a great sense of drama and darkness.
The cast as a whole have a wonderfully chilling presence at the opening of the play, something that unfortunately isn’t really reflected in the final scene when they come together again – though this could be put down to the production team’s running out of time, and indeed the lateness of the hour. Overall, the acting is incredibly strong, particularly by Mr Macheath himself, who judged his amount of serious villainy perfectly, and managed the transitions between his relationships with various women almost too effortlessly. Other stand out performances include the perfectly-judged relationship between Mr and Mrs Peachum, and the dynamic achieved by Mac’s gang, in particular by Matthew (Meg Harrington) and Jake (Eloise Kenny-Ryder) who never once broke character. I would have liked more of a rapport from the group of prostitutes, but Low-Dive Jenny (India Phillips) should be commended for her quiet intensity throughout.
The singing is uniformly skilful, with a nice fluidity of movement between speech and song. Indyana Schneider’s diction is impeccable as Mrs. Peachum, and she makes it look as though un-plugged outdoor performance is exactly what she was made for. The music in general is similarly impressive, and Leo Munby deserves credit for managing to make the melodica sound so musical. The ensemble are well led by Matthew Jackson on keys, and there is evidently a great level of trust between the players and musicians, something that is always lovely to see. I was also delighted to see members of the company playing with the band, and the fact the musicians too wear make up means they are integrated seamlessly into the action – a detail that could easily have been overlooked.
Overall, my only real gripe is the transitions. If the cast members remained in character as guides to the next location, there would not have been such a jolt in proceedings every five minutes or so, a small change but one that would have lifted the entire evening. That said, Threepenny Opera is exactly the kind of theatre we should be encouraging more of in Oxford, and Wadham’s ‘Company of Beggars’ are an incredibly classy one, who deserve to have sold out so quickly.