Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other Love Songs)

Carl Grose, music by Charles Hazlewood

Kneehigh

Home Manchester

From 11 September 2015 to 26 September 2015

Review by David Chadderton

John Gay's The Beggar's Opera—which was, according to composer Charles Hazlewood, "an 'opera' about low-born, mucky people doing low-born, mucky things to each other" in contrast with the usual subjects of opera at the time—became the longest running show in theatre history at Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre in London in 1728.

Gay satirised both the corrupt society of the time and Italian opera, using a mixture of well-known, popular songs of the period with the occasional tune from Handel or Purcell, albeit with debased lyrics.

There is little bite today in a satire about politician Robert Walpole and criminal Jack Sheppard, but Brecht and Weill showed in 1928 that the basic story can be adapted to another society with their The Threepenny Opera. Carl Grose and Charles Hazlewood together with director Mike Shepherd have combined both of these predecessors into a new version that is pure Kneehigh and very much of and for our time.

The story begins with the murder of a politician, Mayor Goodman (Ian Ross), when he is on the verge, his widow (Patrycja Kujawska) soon discovers, of uncovering corruption in the town. The murder of the Mayor and his dog was carried out by notorious criminal Macheath on behalf of the Peachums, as Les Peachum (Martin Hyder), backed by his ruthless wife (Rina Fatania), is planning on becoming the next mayor.

The dead dog (puppeteer Sarah Wright) we've covered (yes, it ends up in a suitcase), but what of the "other Love Songs" of the title? There is a love triangle at the heart of the story as Lucy Lockit (Beverly Rudd), the daughter of corrupt policeman Colin Lockit (Giles King) and a very good lock picker, is pregnant to dashing criminal Macheath, but he goes off and marries the Peachums' daughter Polly (Angela Hardie), perhaps the only "good" character in the play after Goodman is bumped off.

Grose's script does exactly what Gay was doing nearly three hundred years ago but with subjects to which a modern audience can still relate. Hazlewood's wonderfully eclectic score borrows heavily from the '80s and early '90s pop world—the wedding music and dance is pure Madness, Peachum could easily pass for Ian Dury and Lockit seems to be channelling Keith from The Prodigy, plus I'm sure there was a hint at Les Misérables at one point—combined with music with which Gay may have been more familiar.

Shepherd's production is wild and anarchic and often very funny with some striking moments and a big coup de theatre finale (from where did they produce that giant... no, I won't spoil it) but there is a moral rage at the heart of it, an appeal for people to take responsibility for their actions and their effect on others and to have moral courage, which is made very clear in lines like, "you can't blame the world. We made the world. We decide for ourselves."

Michael Vale's versatile set is a little more cramped on the raised stage of Home than it was across the back of the Everyman's open thrust stage last year, but it still works well. Acoustically, the unmiked voices don't always cut through and the real driving rock music could be punchier, but these are minor niggles.

It feels like a huge production, the cast works as a perfect ensemble as well as giving distinctive individual performances and it's all very entertaining, plus it kept all of the school parties on press night almost silently rapt until they stood to applaud wildly at the end. What more could you want?