Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera – here self-consciously dubbed the 3 Penny Opera – is blessed with one of the great scores of modern musical theatre. Like Show Boat which opened the year before the Threepenny Opera premiered in Berlin in 1928, it was a true ground-breaker – but both shows also suffer from unwieldy books that make staging them today a challenge.
Their respective creative teams have come up with innovative solutions for both to make them newly viable. At the New London, director Daniel Evans has used a heavily edited new version of Show Boat that compresses its book while retaining all the glories of the score, while at the National, director Rufus Norris and playwright Simon Stephens have gone for broke with a staging and adaptation that convey the piece’s complexities – a larger than life parable of amoral greed, subversive sexuality and being called to account by rough justice – in a way that is frequently bonkers. A gallery of grotesques is paraded before us. If it sometimes still feels overall like a bit of a scattergun mess, each of the elements has been individually so finely tuned that we surrender to the world that is being created.
This is a rough theatre staging – you do wonder if the National blew all of its musical theatre set budget on Norris’s production of Wonder.land last year. The set on the yawning wide stage of the Olivier is made up of a series of wooden theatrical flats – half crescent moon flown in from the flies with an actor or two on board comprises the sole spectacle.
Instead, the lure and allure of the evening is provided by a crack company of performers, led by an insinuatingly sinister Rory Kinnear as Macheath, making a very creditable fully-fledged singing debut. He’s surrounded by more experienced musical voices, including a scene-stealing opening rendition of Mack the Knife, sung by George Ikediashi, as the Balladeer, a performer best known for his cabaret alter ego, Le Gateau Chocolat.
There’s also strikingly characterised work from Nick Holder and Haydn Gwynne as the Peachums, whose daughter Polly – beautifully sung by Rosalie Craig – marries Macheath. Debbie Kurup is suitably fiery as Lucy Brown, whom Macheath is also pledged to. It is also notable, because it’s so rare, to see a wheelchair-using actor, Jamie Beddard, among the ensemble.
The music is given a jagged, full-blooded treatment by David Shrubsole’s onstage band, and there’s the added value that comes from the interpolation into the score of Surabaya Johnny from Brecht and Weill’s less successful 1929 show Happy End.