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Review: The Beggar's Opera at Chester Storyhouse ****1/2

May 14, 2017

Chester’s new Storyhouse cultural centre has finally opened – and, it appears, in triumphant fashion.

Not only is the building, a marrying of the old grade II listed Art Deco Odeon cinema with a new metal, glass and brick extension, already throbbing with life, but the artistic team has launched its inaugural home-grown season of shows with an absolute beauty.

This new version of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, the setting transposed from London to Chester, reunites the creatives behind Chester Performs’ hugely successful open air theatre season, bringing a sense of that intimacy and immediacy, and what artistic director Alex Clifton calls democratisation, to the Storyhouse stage.

And in fact, that is deliberately echoed in the opening minutes of writer Glyn Maxwell’s delightfully sparky adaptation when the cloying ceremony of a traditional theatrical space is punctured by the arrival of a modern-day gentleman of the streets.

Caolan McCarthy’s grubby troubadour of the Dee has no time for genteel chandelier-and-harpsichord pomposity, because he has his own tale to tell, that of Mack the Knife and his cut-throat kinsmen.

 

McCarthy isn’t the only troubadour on stage. Several of the new Storyhouse rep company are handy musicians as well as actor/singers, not least Tom Connor, playing both male and female roles here, who appears to have been born with a guitar slung over his shoulder.

And music is absolutely central to this feisty production, with composer Harry Blake’s clever songs, running the gamut of styles from Indie rock to limpid ballad, driving the narrative in hugely enjoyable fashion.

There are even a pair of crowd-pleasing sing-offs, one between Daniel Goode’s marvellously realised, morally bankrupt crime lord Peachum and the venal lawman Lockitt (Jonathan Dryden Taylor), and the other between their sparring daughters Polly (Charlotte Miranda-Smith) and Lucy (Nancy Sullivan).

Miranda-Smith sparkles as the dim-but-lovely Polly (“I have no brain, I am made of bits of heart” she explains), and Londoner Sullivan, here essaying Scouse tones, imbues Lucy with a steely, keen determination.

Alex Mugnaioni is the lupine, rangy, bearded object of their, and every other ladies’, affection as the highwayman Macheath, although his appearances in the first half are so fleeting you might find you have to take some of that irresistibility on trust.

The production, unfolding on and around designer Jess Curtis’ effective, spare set, and with the characters in 18th century garb, is a visual treat, although the action itself is not as filthy as it could be, its loucheness more hinted at than acted out.

Apparently, no lesser mortal than David Suchet stood on the Storyhouse’s thrust stage the other day and declared it to be just like the Swan at Stratford.

But closer to home, as someone else pointed out to me at the end of the evening, this new space and the productions planned for it have also just given the Liverpool Everyman a very real theatrical rival.

All photographs by Mark Carline.

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