Review: The Threepenny Opera, by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, trans: Jeremy Sams, New Wolsey Theatre, until March 22.

CiCi Howells and Ben Goffe in The Threepenny Opera. Picture: Patrick Baldwin

CiCi Howells and Ben Goffe in The Threepenny Opera. Picture: Patrick Baldwin - Credit: Patrick Baldwin

This new, re-invigorated staging of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera ends with a simple plea for understanding of the dispossessed. This review also starts with a plea: “Go and see this extraordinary show.”

You will be treating yourselves to one of the theatrical highlights of the year.

It confronts the audience with a glorious cacophony of contradictions. It feels both reckless and supremely well-crafted. It’s strident while also being lyrical and it’s always subversive.

As the charismatic narrator John Kelly (give him a cheer) says in the introduction: “An opera for beggars, conceived with a magnificence such as only beggars could imagine.” Brecht, Weill and Sams have you concerned for the welfare of a rapist and a murderer, rooting for a crime baron and cheering for a gang of opportunist sneak thieves.

The trick here is that they are made human. You relate to them as people. Co-directors Peter Rowe and Jenny Sealey have managed to layer in so much sub-text and background to the characters and the situation that you are immersed into an all-too believable world.


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Jeremy Sams’ translation of the script embraces contemporary concerns. In fact some moments feel uncomfortably real – look out for a guest appearance by Jimmy Saville.

The action takes place in the immediate future. It is the day of Prince Charles’ coronation. The streets are filled with cheering crowds but for those living poverty they see an opportunity to fill their stomachs and make some money.

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The most notorious of these shadowy figures is the dangerous Macheath, also known as Mack The Knife or The Captain. A charismatic individual he is a man who enjoys the finer things in life (when he can get his hands on them) but is prone to violent mood swings – a legacy of his stint in the British army serving in Afghanistan.

He also has a love for the company of women, which eventually proves his undoing. He impulsively marries Polly Peachum, daughter of JJ Peachum, a gangland recycler of clothes and goods. Daddy Peachum is not impressed with his daughter’s choice of husband and sets about reclaiming her.

The plot is a framework to explore the society we are becoming and the characters which are likely to inhabit it. The story is told through the satirical dialogue and the sharp updated lyrics. It is also told visually through the imaginative projections which accompany the captions.

The production feels huge. It is a co-production between The New Wolsey and Graeae Theatre Company with Nottingham Playhouse, Birmingham Rep and the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Twenty actor/musicians fill the stage – able-bodied and disabled actors working together to present a startling evening of entertainment. John Kelly holds the evening together brilliantly as the master of ceremonies, Garry Robson makes the cockney Peachum as engaging as Fagin without ever becoming Fagin, Milton Lopes is dangerously charismatic as Macheath, Will Kenny stamps authority on the role corrupt police chief Tiger Brown while CiCi Howells steals the show as the resourceful and wilful Polly Peachum.

To be honest everyone deserves applause. Rowe and Sealey have populated the stage with a dazzling array of character actors who joyfully bring this contradictory world to life.

The show is hugely entertaining but it also slightly uncomfortable. It really does feel as if a gang of talented homeless street performers have taken over the theatre.

Grab a ticket and be engulfed by one of the most audaciously imaginative pieces of theatre you’ll see for a very long time.

Andrew Clarke

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