John Gay’s 1728 comedy about a womanising highwayman is a bawdy tale indeed, resurrected with suitable gusto by Lucy Bailey for the Regent’s Park Open Air theatre.
Prostitutes and pickpockets, highwaymen and corrupt gaolers, plus two parents who would kill their daughter’s husband to line their own pockets, The Beggar’s Opera features a motley crew of characters.
The plot centres around the Peachums: daughter Polly has fallen for highwayman Macheath, much to the dismay of her parents. But Mr and Mrs Peachum aren’t so much concerned for their “hussy” daughter’s welfare – parental concern isn’t the forte of this morally-dubious pair – but for their own lives and finances. Fearing Macheath will kill them to get Polly’s inheritance, they plan to bump him off first, by getting him captured and hanged for his long line of offenses. As for Macheath, he’s a rampant womaniser who has bedded and knocked up a string of women, including Lucy Lockit, whose passion for her lover leads her to murderous thoughts against Polly.
Director Bailey plays on the salacious details as she depicts this coarse underworld where women offer themselves as bait and men turn knives on each other at the slightest provocation. Both a bar brawl between Macheath’s highwaymen and a bitch-fight between whores are well staged, each pack as animalistic as the other. And the physical humour really takes off in the second half with a particularly funny set-to between Lucy and Polly.
Beverly Rudd makes a fine Lucy who you certainly wouldn’t want to mess with; underneath her lovelorn desperation for Macheath is a tough cookie who will fight to survive. Jasper Britton and Phil Daniels – as Peachum and Lucy’s father, the Newgate gaoler Lockit – make a good double act as they join forces to capture Macheath. As the man in question, David Caves is a cool customer, perhaps more suave and less roguish than you would expect a lowlife highwayman to be, but nevertheless an understandable lady’s man.
The tale is lavishly staged on a detailed set by William Dudley based around a gibbet which threatens a public hanging from the very beginning. A large quilted bed spews a steady stream of occupants, adding to the bawdy tone.
Also to be noted is the music, as used in Gay’s original and played here on traditional instruments by six musicians. Though at times it slows down the increasingly farcical action, it is an essential part of the piece, reminding us of the period in which the piece is set. It also provides a strangely sweet counterpart to the coarseness of the characters. In the end, for all the play’s immoral themes – the only reason a girl should marry, says Peachum, is the prospect of becoming a rich widow – Gay ends the piece with a happy ending (for some) and a dash of true love. Perhaps he was a romantic after all.