The Threepenny Opera - National Youth Theatre
Ian Johns/September 2, 2002/The Times
It's hard not to admire the National Youth Theatre, not only for encouraging such future talents
as Timothy Spall and Derek Jacobi, but also for its scale of ambition. Last year the company brought to
London an enjoyable staging of David Edgar's twopart epic, The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby.
This year it's Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.So much of Brecht's work now reeks of
museum mustiness, but the NYT makes a game attempt of updating his and Weill's 1928 bitter satire
The Threepenny Opera. Just as Brecht transplanted John Gay's The Beggar's Opera from the 18th century to a mock-Victorian Soho, the director Edward Wilson now updates the action to 2002.
Since Brecht's original parallels between the criminal underclass and the ruling elite no longer
carry satirical clout, this version plays out the story as one of power and destitution in which all the
parties are motivated by self interest. The gang leader Macheath and Tiger Brown (here not a jailer
but the chief of police) are ex-squaddies who fought together in the Falklands and are now as corrupt as
each other. Peachum, the king of the beggars, is planning to disrupt the Golden Jubilee celebrations
with his army of professional vagrants. His daughter Polly, newly married to Macheath, is eager to take over his gang when her husband is betrayed by the torch-carrying whore Jenny Diver and caught by the police.
Like Phyllida Lloyd's contemporary reworking of Brecht and Weill's anti-opera at the Donmar
Warehouse in 1994, this production uses Robert David Macdonald's earthy translation and Jeremy
Sams's lyric translation. The songs -- packed with a wealth of modern references from Channel 4
executives to Goose Green -- display a savage cynicism that live up to Weill's sardonic chords.
Mac the Knife, nowadays so often sounding like a nostalgic lament, here forcefully tells us in a
catalogue of Macheath's crimes that he is an arsonist and rapist. As delivered by Lucy Voller's vocally strong Jenny, it becomes a mordantly chilling finale to Act I.
But elsewhere Wilson's committed company never manages to conjure up a real sense of sleaze
and danger in this world of crooks, corrupt police and vengeful, lovelorn prostitutes. Even the brothel
tango seems more like a tea dance.
Vocally the cast is also very uneven, with the actors proving to be either better singers than actors
or vice versa. Gareth David-Lloyd has the presence to deliver Macheath's heartless insolence and
swagger but not the voice to suggest that he's a name to watch in musical theatre. Jo Nesbitt as
Polly has a raw, edgy energy when she sings but often resorts to a one-note shrillness for the
The rest of the cast snatch moments for themselves -- Beverley Rudd as Mrs Peachum
delivers flashes of cynicism with a Dickensian flourish -- and the music still has a haunting power.
But there's a softness at the heart of this diverting production that suggest this bitterly cynical work
requires a cast with a bit more experience than innocence.