The Beggars Opera in Shaftesbury

Hogarth’s painting of a performance of The beggars opera in Lincoln’s Inn Theatre (1731)
Hogarth’s painting of a performance of The beggars opera in Lincoln’s Inn Theatre (1731)

Readers on Facebook will know that Mark Blackham, a follower and a prodigious blogger himself, bemoaned the fact that there was only one published review of the Shaftesbury Music & Drama Group’s production of “The Beggar’s Opera”, which ended on Saturday at Shaftesbury Arts Centre.

So we asked Walter Plinge, our resident drama critic to oblige on behalf of the Blog.

The Beggars Opera was originally performed in London in 1728, and tells a sordid tale of robbery, betrayal and London low life against a Hogarthian background which is colourful, squalid, gin-sodden and violent.  The author, John Gay, conceived it as a “ballad opera”, where the majority of the songs and choruses were based on popular English, French and Scottish ballads of the day, many of which are still entrenched in our folk repertoire. “Mack the Knife”, from Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill’s 1928 German adaptation is still hugely popular.

Shaftesbury Arts Centre chose to revive Benjamin Britten’s operatic version, penned in 1948. Britten fans may well have loved it, but if you prefer melodious tunes with decent four or six part harmonies to anguished howling in a minor key, this show is not for you.

Which is a pity, because this imaginative production, set in a waste recycling centre,  was terrific, with wonderful sets, costumes and some brilliant character performances by leading and supporting actors. The choruses provided some high points, as the cast of criminals, harlots, jades and paupers sang their hearts out.

We have to mention one performance. The narrator was attended by his dog throughout the show, which the animal well and truly stole. (This same dog, Tiffin, starred in their recent production of “Oliver”)

On Saturday a  well-dressed man in the front row started to eat a pork pie (Surely not -Ed). At the first crinkle of wrapping paper the dog was alert and transfixed, and remained so, drooling, while the pie was slowly consumed with great relish. A non-thespian canine would have left its post and begged for some pie.  Did this one? No. Good boy!

Verdict: Great acting and production, defeated by the difficulty of the music. Perhaps they should have chosen one of the other versions.

But full marks to Shaftesbury for their courage and enterprise in staging a difficult and demanding show. They nearly pulled it off.

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