Have you heard the story about the dead dog in a suitcase? A classic urban myth that probably ‘happened’ to someone you know of, the story has been adopted into Carl Grose’s musical adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera. Originally developed by Kneehigh and the Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse in 2014, this modern version opens with the murder of the “last good man”, Mayor Goodman, and his dog Toby, and thus begins the drama of the dead dog in a suitcase. The production is set in a world of “despicable deeds, corporate conspiracy and back-stabbing” as the programme forewarns us. The focus on the political corruption of this world brings this 18th century show right up to the present day and resonates eerily with the audience.
Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and Other Love Songs) is, as the title suggests, a musical, and the music regularly interspersed throughout the narrative is fitting and borrows from a range of genres; the songs serve to further the narrative and add something to the audience’s understanding of the characters. The music, composed by Charles Hazlewood, is performed live on stage and creates a music concert feel to the piece and allows for a repartee between the band and the actors; indeed some of the band take on roles as part of Mac’s gang and the actors themselves all play an instrument to contribute to the soundscape. In the same spirit of immersion, the set designed by Michael Vale is a fantastic and intricate scaffolding that the actors climb up and down and repurpose to suit the needs of the scene, all done underneath an ever present noose that hangs as a warning and reminder of our characters’ inevitable fate.
Finally, director Mike Shepherd highlights a parallel between the story of our antihero Macheath and that of Mr Punch (of Punch and Judy fame) through the use of puppetry, expertly led by Sarah Wright at this performance as chief puppeteer. From Punch, to dogs and crying babies, the puppets serve to remind the audience how ridiculous and pantomimic the actions of the real world characters can seem at times, forcing us to question who the real heroes and villains are in our society.
For instance, you certainly don’t believe that Macheath could be as bad as everyone says he is, despite watching him murder someone in the opening scenes. Dominic Marsh is sexy and alluring throughout and we are won over by his charm, just the same as poor Polly and Lucy and all the other girls he’s deceived. The Peachums follow a Macbeth style tragic trajectory as their corruption and greed gets the better of them and they sink further into depravity and anarchy, which is delicious to watch. Rina Fatania as Mrs Peachum is sinister and silly in equal measure – an incredibly disturbed and disturbing portrayal of a power-hungry manipulator. Stand out performance goes to Georgia Frost as the put-upon Filch, who acquires a series of increasingly severe injuries throughout Act One as the Peachum’s dogsbody. Frost also multi-roles a range of distinctly different characters that are integral to the plot, and provides some stunning vocals in her solo song.
In 1728, when John Gay premiered The Beggar’s Opera it shocked audiences for being about common people doing common things. Dead Dog in a Suitcase is shocking for other reasons – just when you think it’s all over, they pull a huge stunt that no one is expecting. But what is truly unnerving is how familiar it all seems. Kneehigh have created a show that beautifully showcases the shadowy underbelly of our society and you leave the theatre considering the same question that Macheath ponders; “what is the world coming to?”
Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and Other Love Songs) is touring the South of England until 13 July. For more information and tickets, visit the Kneehigh website.