Threepenny Opera - Thursday, 9th - Saturday, 11th December - Founder Hall, 7.30pm
Review by Will Burn
My abiding memory of last year’s triumphant production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance was Jamie Webb-Bowen’s very fetching furry slippers. They seemed to me to sum up the show: warm, comforting, fluffy, but not the sort of thing to take out in heavy rain. My abiding memory of this year’s Threepenny Opera? Edward Limb knifing Adam MacElhone in the back. I suppose it only goes to show how times have changed, in these dark days of student unrest, cutbacks and the final of the X-factor.
So Mr Wilkinson, for his final show after nearly thirty years of directing school plays at the High School, took us back to London in the Nineteen Thirties, to the alleyways and beggars of Soho, to corrupt policemen and mercenary philanthropists, to whores, priests and gangsters. Writing that, it all seems rather modern. But this is the world of Jeremiah Peachum, who makes a tidy living off the back of the army of urchins he employs to tug on the heartstrings of London’s passing trade, dressing them up as war veterans, blind boys and victims of official tyranny. Yet he and his darling wife have suffered a terrible tragedy: their daughter, Polly, has married the murderous Captain Macheath, leader of a villainous gang, who enjoys the protection of ‘Tiger’ Brown, Chief of Police and former comrade-in-arms of ‘Mack the Knife’ Macheath. Thus the plot proceeds, through the whorehouses of Wapping and the cells of the Old Bailey, to Mack’s extraordinarily fortunate last-minute pardon even as the noose is tightened around his neck, and then the chorus enjoins us not to punish iniquity too harshly. Guys and Dolls it ain’t.
And precisely for that reason, I enjoyed it tremendously. Yes, it was dark, cold and cynical at times, and just about the only likeable character on stage was Lucy, the drunk who kept faith in Mack, but the score, full of staggering foxtrots and drunken chorales, kept me absolutely enthralled, and was performed excellently by the band under the direction of Mr Reid.
The cast, too, was on fine form, and I was impressed by how every member of the ensemble was really contributing to the drama throughout the whole performance. Partly this was down to the decision to stage the play ‘in the round’, which creates the claustrophobic atmosphere ideally suited to the dark underworld of the piece, but chiefly it came from the commitment and engagement from everyone involved. Peachum’s ragged band of urchins, led by Sebastian Harwood, whose Cockney accent was a triumph of the Dick van Dyke school of acting, were heartrending in their portrayal of victims of official tyranny, which was represented by Adam McElhone as Tiger Brown; and the ladies of the Wapping bordello were almost too convincing in as they draped themselves over flea-bitten furniture.
There were moments of comedy, provided by Isaac Murdy and Will Robinson, as well as Mack’s gang of toughs, played by Ciaran Green, Ben Kawalec, James Dunajko Thomas Camidge and Nathaniel Cox. I was particularly impressed by the way the Year 9 boys brought their roles to life, and they promise excellent things for drama at the High School.
What surprised me, however, was that, despite the fact this was Mr Wilkinson’s last show, there was a sense of newness about it, of new faces bringing new voices and ideas to the show. Charles Lea, last year a salty tar of the chorus in Pirates, this year delivered a fantastic comic performance as the put-upon Jeremiah Peachum, and Sarah Stone was a formidable prospect as the fiery Mrs Peachum. Also capable of steely determination was Emma Swann as Lucy, one of Mack’s former lovers, carrying what at first appeared to be his child, but was later revealed to be a smallish cushion.
In a bold move, the two leading roles were given to the newest faces of all. Edward Limb was terrifying as Mack, menacing and sauve in equal measure, and Imogen Lea made Polly Peachum into a young lady capable not only of facing down her parents, but turning a crime syndicate into a respectable bank, and treble the profits in the process. Mr Wilkinson and Mrs Wheeler’s trust was fully rewarded, and I look forward greatly to seeing them in future school shows. Perhaps next year’s play could be something a little more light-hearted – Waiting For Godot, anyone?
So how much does 3d buy nowadays? According to one measure, it’s worth about £2.40, enough to buy a pad of raffle tickets or a “world’s best grandpa” sticker for your car. But that seems a pretty cheap price for what was a terrific evening’s entertainment.