"Swapping 18th-century street ballads for ska and dubstep, Kneehigh's reworking of The Beggar's Opera is bright, bold and curiously timeless" The Guardian ****
"You can be fairly certain what you are going to get before the curtain even rises on a Kneehigh show. First, that there won't actually be a curtain, as the company's pre-show and interval entertainment almost justifies the ticket price in its own right; second, that the main event will combine madcap virtuosity with loud music and a pungent whiff of the circus coming to town.
As such, the company's choice of subject tends to fall into two categories: those that suit such a highly evolved house style and those that don't. Happily, this rewrite of The Beggar's Opera by Carl Grose sits firmly in the former camp, as the story is given the lurid appearance of a timeless, yet very urban, myth.
You could argue that the Beggar's Opera scarcely needs updating given that Benjamin Britten and Kurt Weill may seem to have had the last word on Macheath's nihilistic appointment with the gallows. But in stitching the story together from ready-made popular airs and street ballads, John Gay not only succeeded in pricking the pomposity of Handelian grand opera, he also invented the jukebox musical.
Mike Shepherd's production delights on many levels, but primarily succeeds because Charles Hazlewood's scoreprovides a superior form of jukebox. Hazlewood has the ability to create through-composed sequences of genuine thematic development, but also an ear wide enough to suggest that bawdy 18th-century airs and catches share a direct bloodline with ska, grime and dubstep.
Grose tinkers with the plot to reconceive Macheath as a contemporary contract killer who blithely dispatches a politician and then shoots his dog, claiming it to be a witness. It's a typical stroke of Kneehigh's attention to detail that when the canine's puppet corpse is later discovered, there are puppet flies buzzing around it.
Dominic Marsh's Macheath has sufficient reserves of baby-faced charm to get away with murder. Carly Bawden's peerless Polly Peachum is the prim heir to a pilchard fortune, and there's a fine turn from Rina Fatania as her vulgarian mother, who turns out to be the real criminal mastermind of the operation. The macabre concluding tableau is either a thrilling alternative to Gay's slightly pat ending, or a grotesque over-compensation. But true to form, Kneehigh have come up with a piece that is not the Beggar's Opera so much as an opera which beggars belief."
Read the review here