Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Buskers Opera

Book, music and lyrics by Dougal Irvine
Buskers Opera Ltd in association with Park Theatre
Park Theatre (200)

Lauren Samuels and George Maguire Credit: Simon Annand
David Burt Credit: Simon Annand
George Maguire (Macheath) and Natasha Cottriall (Lucy Lockitt) Credit: Simon Annand

There is something very odd about Dougal Irvine’s The Buskers Opera. The subject matter leads us to expect an unconventional musical satire on social inequality. But that is exactly what it is not.

Despite opening by praising Brecht and Weil’s assault on capitalism and Gay’s earlier ridicule of the upper classes, Irvine gives us a very safe musical. The story roughly follows the pattern of Gay’s original Beggar’s Opera but with some pointlessly unpleasant moments that would make it difficult for children to watch. Although the music is generally similar to mainstream musicals, it doesn’t really have any memorable tunes or insightful lyrics. The politics are mostly vague about their targets. They rely on easy stereotypes and the mocking of those who protest.

The Buskers Opera centres on the celebrity busker Macheath (George Maguire) who is quite explicitly modelled on Russell Brand. Between ill-defined protests against the London Olympics, he marries the daughter of Peachum, the newspaper billionaire, and gets the daughter of the London Mayor pregnant.

The cast work hard to make the show interesting. They perform well together and show good timing in the delivery of their lines. The lively choreography of Lucie Pankhurst keeps things constantly moving.

There are many fine performances from, among others, David Burt as the roguish newspaper baron and Lauren Samuels as Polly Peachum, the passionate leader of the 99% protest group.

There is a particularly striking short, well-delivered speech from Maimuna Memon as a dignified beggar gently explaining to Macheath the powerless position of beggars. It is a calm performance that encourages a rare moment of empathy minutes before she is murdered for a ridiculous reason by one of the main characters.

But then this is a show that won’t be winning any awards for its depiction of women. It is essentially the battle between a charismatic Macheath and the two pillars of the establishment Peachum and Mayor Lockitt (Simon Kane) who regard their daughters as property. The women's fate is reduced to a very poor joke.

The show's depiction of the protesters isn’t much better. It is difficult to work out what the characters are protesting against beyond corporate sponsorship of the Olympics. However, what is more dramatically realised is a cynical, clichéd scene in which a gathering of the different protest groups can’t even agree about what handshake to use and then turn their supposed ring leader Macheath over to the police for the bribe of £100.

The show perhaps needs to care more about its characters and their dramatic realisation. It also needs to have a more substantial story, challenging music and believable coherent politics if it is to sustain the interest of an audience.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna