John Gay’s bawdy opera/proto-musical was a revelation and a shock when it first hit London in 1728. Part of this revelation was no doubt its unalloyed scabrous delight in presenting a society corrupt in all corners, though, crucially, with its canker spreading from the top down. It seems that the clear parallels to be drawn with the immoral and amoral forces rampant in 2019 have given the Kneehigh creators their inspiration for this “new Beggar’s opera” – Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and Other Love Songs). The parallels (and the just-as-interesting divergences) between then and now are striking and the possibilities for a rivetingly modern update seem incredibly exciting. So the disappointment of this reworking, first staged in 2014 and now on a three-week run at the Lyric Hammersmith, echoes ever more powerfully
There is something distinctly half-baked in the eventual effect of the whole enterprise. The giant shadow that Brecht and Weil’s 20th century version of Gay, in the now much more famous update The Threepenny Opera, lies long over any idea of attacking the original again. Music, theatricality, satire and wit – all of these meld perfectly together in the former piece. In Dead Doghowever, Carl Grose’s writing is nowhere near as sharp or original as it must be, verging more toward the anodyne air of pantomime than the vicious social critique of Brecht.
Charles Hazlewood’s score is sometimes successful, such as in Macheath’s version of Greensleaves or a multi-part counterpoint piece or a riff on Purcell, but (perhaps because he comes from a classical background) in his attempts to integrate such genres as new wave, electro disco, grime, dubstep or others into the mix, he is far less successful and ultimately ends up with nothing more than a generic mishmash. The music, naturally enough, must be the central beating heart of even such a diluted ‘opera’ as this one, and while Hazlewood seems to have the right idea – bringing in contemporary genres in the same way Weil swapped 18th century tunes for the world of Weimar cabaret – he is unable to carry it off.
Mike Shepherd’s direction seems similarly lacklustre, even messy at times. There were none of the standout set-pieces that felt necessary or truly original, and I was reminded of Rufus Norris’ much sprightlier version of Threepenny at the National Theatre a few years back. The use of puppets initially seem a promising addition, but nothing that particularly makes sense is made of them, and it is really unclear what character purpose – if any – they are supposed to serve. While there are some effective moments, such as an extended – and suspenseful – hanging sequence, there is much too often the sense of a tired rota of moves, positions and attitudes.
The performances are, as we would expect from Kneehigh, energetic, though not especially original. Georgia Frost is perhaps the standout as Macheath’s (Dominic Marsh) sidekick Filch, who suddenly explodes in a burst of soul-singing that raises the energy a few notches. Marsh himself though is a disappointing Macheath, unable to summon the sense of genuine danger, violent nature, and attendant attraction or repulsion to bring the audience along with him. Rina Fatania is a fine Mrs. Peachum, with moments of what feel like improvisatory brilliance. Michael Vale’s set has a definite air of Brechtian and constructivist openness to it and should have been better exploited.
I leave disappointed – not because the production in and of itself is so very poor, but that it had such strong claims for itself (and had some made by others) – and although building on such rich material, did not deliver.
Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and Other Love Songs) is playing until 15 June. For more information and tickets, visit the Lyric Hammersmith website.