Original British musicals are certainly not experiencing a boom-time in the commercial West End, but the London fringe continues to take risks and develop work by new writers and provide a comfortable environment for risks to be taken. Sadly I couldn't see enough risks being taken with this timely yet overly clean-cut modernisation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, and rather than a call to arms it felt too apologetic.
Set at the height of the London 2012 Olympic Games the piece survives the modernisation to a degree, with clever parallels between Gay's original characters and fairly stock modern counterparts, which include a Boris Johnson-esque Mayor and ruthless media mogul pulling the strings of both government and establishment. Macheath becomes a Russell Brand type messiah charged with leading a political revolution of the 99%, whilst struggling to keep his pants on, and is used by the establishment to regain control of the masses.
The major problem with the production is its uneven tone. The satire is never quite sharp enough, and where it does attempt to prod it's not executed with enough force and feels dated and sadly overdone. Cementing the narrative so solidly during the Olympic Games, which I found wholly unnecessary to the central message, means that we've seen this level of parody all before. From the speaking-in-tweets 'gap-yah' daughter of Peachum to the parodies of the occupy movement, there's a lot of vamping on old jokes. Odd moments of fantasy attempt to blend with realism, including some Mr G. inspired giant cardboard scissors that appear to represent government cuts, and I could never tell whether the interpretive dance was supposed to be ironic or taken seriously.
The staging does little to help this and could do with a heavy dose of tension, fire and passion to drive the important core message across. It's all so overly polite, clean and about as edgy as a roundabout – I didn't feel the necessary hatred for the 1% and the twisted system in my gut, I wanted to be persuaded to join a revolution but wouldn't cross the road to join this hapless tribe.
The cast is a mixed bag, excelling at the company vocal moments with some excellent musical arrangements, but lacking in a consistent commitment to the material. Some play for laughs, others find the drama, whilst others attempt to send up the genre, making for an in-cohesive company drive. There's some excellent work from Natasha Cottriall who delivers the show's take away numbers, and the moments that work best are those when the actor-musicians get to show off their skills.
There's a distinct lack of grit in both the music and the production, and I couldn't help but turn off from the squeaky-clean image the musical presents. Moments of rap and spoken word feel so inauthentic and overly staged that it's like 'Hamilton' by a weekend theatre school. Beginning the show in a similar way to the Broadway juggernaut is asking for comparison, and whereas Lin-Manuel Miranda grabs you by the throat and doesn't let you go, Irvine's piece whimpers into being and practically challenges you to give it your full attention.
Where Dougal Irvine's score does succeed however is in the less narrative moments and those within the more traditional musical theatre model. He combines melody and lyrics in a fresh and distinctly unique way that never feels formulaic or derivative, and clearly writes well for voices as competent as George Maguire and Lauren Samuels. I must confess I found myself worn down by the book's constant rhyming couplets which didn't have the humour or wit that were often found in the lyrics.
It's a fascinating project and there's much to commend, but London deserves this to be a much grittier and hard-hitting modern parallel rather than the champagne socialism the musical currently represents.