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Review: Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera at the Oxford Playhouse

‘Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera’, it says on the front of my programme – apparently, the threat suggested by ‘opera’ might counterbalance even the promise of a name like Brecht. Looking inside the programme, though, it’s clear these two elements of the title are as misleading as the third (if any arts group ever comes by the funding to put on an opera with tickets that actually cost 3p, I’d like to hear about it!)

Berthold Brecht, director Georgie Botham writes, produced his adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera thanks to the work of Elisabeth Hauptmann, who translated Gay into German and collaborated with Brecht and Kurt Weill. This production makes a point of crediting her valuable work, acknowledging that some of the genius we ascribe to Brecht had another source.

As to its being an opera, there are more exciting arguments to be had than over blurry musical theatre boundaries. I like Botham’s take on the matter, that Threepenny is a ‘cacophony’. From its jarring overture – with the band led onstage by charmingly bashful Assistant Musical Director Josh Cottell – to vulnerable ballads almost reminiscent of Amy Winehouse, this is a show which defies easy categorisation.

Whatever it is, though, it’s excellent. The casting is exceptionally strong: a fizzingly over-the-top Marcus Knight-Adams as Mr Peachum opposite pragmatic and earthy Mrs P (Ella Tournes); their daughter Polly played with knowing cheekiness by Emelye Moulton, who proves more than a match for Macheath, the smoothly seductive protagonist of the piece given a terrifying physicality by Eoghan McNelis.

What’s more, this cast can sing! Between them, Botham and Musical Director Matthew Jackson have woven the music through the show so as to demand absolute musical proficiency from all involved, and they absolutely deliver. Particular highlights include Moulton’s turn at the piano during her wedding night song ‘Pirate Jenny’, Louis Cunningham’s smooth delivery of the brilliant classic ‘Mack the Knife’, and Mack’s own remarkable vocals in his demanding role. The ensemble numbers, too, are impressive: combining such slick choreography with the technical difficulty of numbers like ‘How Does a Man Survive’ is no mean feat.

This being the OUMS magazine, there was always going to be a full paragraph on the band, but this band in particular deserve the attention. With a combined 15 years of Oxford music between the 8 of them, and some 17 or 18 instruments, they command Weill’s score and their tiny area of the stage. It’s when they move beyond this area, though, that Botham’s and Jackson’s direction proves itself. They play from platforms, they chat to the cast, percussionist Darius Latham-Koenig cranes around his many many drums, and it all looks so deceptively easy that you might not even notice those players who have memorised chunks of the score. The musicians’ integration into the play does not feel forced or awkward: they are having fun, and so is the audience watching them. As they razz through the closing bars of curtain call music, I find myself hoping that more Oxford productions will follow this example of a really integrated musical theatre, one which capitalises on the wealth of talent available to it.

There are so many other parts of Threepenny to praise: Chloe Dootson-Graube’s bold monochrome costume design; Mack’s gang of rogues brought to life by Gavin Fleming, Maddy Page, Ryan Lea, Kerenza Hur and Eloise Kenny-Ryder; Alex Buchanan’s portrayal of the desperate and corrupt Chief Inspector. Fundamental to the show’s success, though, is the consistency of its direction. It sets out to show us a difficult and brutal story, everything from the music to the set to the sound design does just that. It sets out to address the historic gender imbalance of Hauptmann’s obscurity, and follows through with a powerful portrayal of sexual threat and control which gives real agency to women who could be seen as victims: Polly, Mrs P, Lucy Brown (Page), and, most of all, Jenny (Amelia Holt). It sets out with a graffiti scribble in the place of ‘opera’, and delivers a show which more than makes its mark.


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