2016 is turning out to be a good year for new writing. The latest in the line of new British musicals is Dougal Irvine’s 21st century successor to The Beggar’s Opera: The Buskers Opera. It tells the hidden story behind the London 2012 Olympics – an event widely lauded & the catalyst of a wave of good feeling across the country. But what were the consequences? Putting on “the greatest show on Earth” doesn’t come cheap, and by the time 25 July 2012 finally came around we were gripped by austerity & had the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition to thank for it. The ‘ConDem Nation’ tag never seemed more apt. Should we really be spending money we didn’t have on a fancy sporting event? But then the games came, Britain did surprisingly well & we all forgot. London was left to pay the price.
Irvine’s book (assisted by director/dramaturg Lotte Wakeham) manages to strike the balance between highlighting the injustice that was the legacy of the games, without becoming self-righteous. In fact, his characters reference the balance we all have to try & strike – it’s all very well to say you want things to change, but you need to do more than sound off about it. You have to make it happen, in whatever way you can. That is an important message and one that is possible for us all to live by. The Buskers Opera team have led the way with their involvement in the Art Matters campaign. The book also cleverly contextualises the show in terms of its predecessors, The Beggar’s Opera and The Threepenny Opera, stating the paradox about writing a socialist piece & then making money out of it, however genuine the sentiments.
The script itself is witty & biting; genuinely satirical social commentary in rhyming couplets. It is a great skill to create a show that not only rhymes, but rhymes well. The songs are equally clever & funny – and ridiculously catchy! If nothing else, there definitely should be a cast recording released; it’s the least Irvine deserves for his years of hard work on this project.
The show is presented on a relatively bare stage, thrust & on two levels. The cast are left to bring on (& remove) props, which works remarkably well considering the pace at which the show moves. There is barely a moment to catch your breath, yet they manage multiple costume changes! It’s a testament to the cast’s commitment & skill that this all happens so smoothly.
A hugely talented ensemble has been brought together for this production – they sing, they dance (Lucie Pankhurst’s choreography is inspired) & some even play instruments to bolster the band. There is not a weak link amongst them.
My absolute standouts are John McCrea, Lauren Samuels, Natasha Cottriall & George Maguire, with honourable mentions for David Burt & Simon Kane as the not-so-honourable Peachum & Lockitt. The cast is completed by the brilliant Ishmael Gander, Maimuna Memon & Giovanna Ryan.
John McCrea’s main role is that of Filtch. He works for Peachum, but under it all he does seem to have a good heart. Though, spurned by Polly, he resorts to desperate & tragic measures… McCrea has outstanding comic timing and a belter of a voice. Towards the end his character has to impersonate Macheath – if a stand-in is ever needed, I’m sure McCrea would make a more than capable understudy!
Samuels is a sweet, but a bit deluded, Polly. A whirlwind romance with Macheath and suddenly they’re married! She doesn’t really know him at all, but seems content to believe in their shared idealism & her ‘interesting’ religion. Polly’s vocal parts show off Samuels’ range perfectly.
Natasha Cottriall is a true star in the making – her turn as spoilt mayor’s daughter Lucy Lockitt is a scene-stealing delight. Her character has a one night stand with Macheath & finds herself pregnant, and wrestles with the dilemma of whether or not to keep it. There are several points where you’re sure she’s starting to amend her ways & make decisions for the right reasons, when in actual fact she remains selfish & nasty until the end; Cottriall plays this completely convincingly. She has a natural flair for comedy & an absolutely stunning voice – I’m sure it won’t be long before we see her on a West End stage.
The star of the show is George Maguire as rogue busker Macheath, leader of a group called ‘the 99percenters’. He is rightly billed as an anti-hero – whilst there are numerous occasions where his words are inspiring & you can see him as a role model, he is as flawed as any human can be, and definitely takes things too far in his campaign against authority. We do see him take a journey as the story goes on – Maguire’s performance makes this development utterly believable. Starting out cocky & reckless, he realises the error of his ways & sets upon a way to try & practise what he preaches. Maguire’s natural charisma & unique voice elevate Macheath from Irvine’s script, making him a relatable focus of the audience’s attention. I can’t imagine anyone more suited to bringing this character to life.
Unlike the politicians & authority figures it lampoons, The Buskers Opera delivers on all of its promises. It is undeniably of a high enough quality to merit extended life of some kind – its message is an important one that should reach as many people as it possibly can. Whether it’s transfer material, who knows? It would certainly be at home somewhere like Trafalgar Studios, but I think the timing also has to be right. Holding its official opening night on London’s mayoral election day was a stroke of genius, whether accidental or intentional (leaving enough time to visit the polling station after the show), and I would hope its future would continue to follow such a template.
My verdict? A slick, witty & relevant piece of theatre that will have you humming its tunes & thinking over its message long after the final bow.
The Buskers Opera runs at the Park Theatre until 4 June 2016. Tickets are available online and from the box office.