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Dougal Irvine on The Buskers Opera

Published 22 April 2016

Time is of the essence for The Buskers Opera. The cast take to the stage for their first preview next Thursday, while its crowdfunding campaign to raise enough money for its outreach work and the Park Theatre’s first relaxed performance closes on Tuesday.

The new musical from Dougal Irvine, inspired by The Beggars Opera and the London Olympics, is a tale of political and media corruption and those who would fight against it.

As Irvine explains in a piece written exclusively for Official London Theatre, its road to the Park’s stage was anything but simple, and the moral dilemmas were just as tricky as the struggles to get the show produced:


I began writing The Buskers Opera in 2011 after my first musical Departure Lounge had had a successful run in London. I was beginning to earn a living as a writer and was immediately struck by an internal conflict between wanting to write about social injustices and the fact that if I were successful I would receive money and acclaim for describing someone else’s misfortune.

I happened upon John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera while researching satire and a few things struck me. 1) It was arguably the first ever musical 2) It was essentially a juke box show, using popular music of the day. 3) If I changed the title to The Buskers Opera it would suit my style of music and I could do a modern version of it.

The Beggar’s Opera lampooned political figures of the time. In 2011, London was preparing for the Olympics. The feeling in the capital was overwhelmingly that they were a mistake; they were costing too much, there was too much corporate sponsorship. Locals were being kicked out of Stratford as investors scooped up council housing to for private development.

My first draft placed Macheath as an immigrant, caught up in Peacham Property developers who were employing illegal immigrants to build the Olympic Games’ site. I eventually left this version behind, as it was moving out of satire into a rather dark reality. Nonetheless I felt the anti-Olympic feeling was important to capture.

I eventually showcased some material at an Opening Doors event run by a young producer called Michael Peavoy. This lead to the piece being optioned by him and three other producers in late 2012. Producers on board – job done?! Ha.

The development path of the show was not smooth. One of the main challenges with writing on spec is you have too many degrees of freedom. At various points we had interest from Lyric Hammersmith, then Soho Theatre, then Theatre Royal Stratford East to name a few. Each time my producers would ring going, “so and so wants to see the script”. Knowing the piece wasn’t quite ready but wanting it to be the best it could, I would then basically thrash out a new draft in two weeks, tailored to pleasing the artistic remit of whomever we were pitching to. I was getting exhausted and the piece wasn’t getting any better.

Finally, Jez Bond at the Park Theatre gave us a green light and we were good to go. Finally I could write to a definite production deadline. The approaching Olympics in Rio and the legacy of 2012 suddenly became more relevant than ever. The piece quickly took shape and with the further help of Lotte Wakeham, who is a fantastic dramaturg as well as director, we reached a version we could all get excited about.

Back then to my original dilemma. How to make entertainment from others’ misfortune?

We had to do more than soap box preaching. If the Olympics were a beautiful event used cynically, The Buskers Opera had to be a cynical event used beautifully. This lead us to the outreach elements of the production.

Workshopping the show with Cardboard Citizens gave us an opportunity to cast outside standard industry circles. My producers and I talked further about how to make the production the legacy the Games should have been. To give opportunities to those who needed them, not just those best placed to capitalise on them. This lead to our Art Matters Pass it on Scheme, funding tickets for those who can’t afford it and paying for the first ever relaxed performance at the Park.

Writing The Buskers Opera has challenged me both technically (it’s the most complex thing I’ve ever written) but also personally to become a better artist.

I believe theatre is a life changing experience and should be available to all, not just to those who can afford it. I read recently we live in a Golden Age of Theatre. That may be, but with homeless numbers double what they were in 2012, I think it couldn’t hurt for everyone in the ‘biz’ to do a quick check in the mirror and remind themselves what it is about Art that matters to them.

You can donate to The Buskers Operas outreach programme, which aims to fund a relaxed performance and free tickets to be distributed through charities and youth groups, by visiting its Crowdfunder page.


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