POLLY (THE HEARTBREAK OPERA) at Greenwich Theatre
It’s a brave theatrical performance that begins with the show’s narrator declaring gleefully: Theatre is dead. Such bravado could have spelled disaster. But in Sharp Teeth and Marie Hamilton’s production of Polly (The Heartbreak Opera) at Greenwich Theatre, the upshot was a triumphant melding of satire, stagecraft, songs, comedy and more than a hint of the sinister.
The tone was set at the outset as narrator and co-writer Madeline Shann, menacingly prowling the stage in unsettling whiteface, told us theatre had snuffed it because there were no new stories for actors to bring to life, so all they could do was reanimate the rotting corpses of past works.
The cadaver in this case was Polly, the banned sequel to John Gay’s evergreen 1728 creation The Beggar’s Opera, which director Stephanie Kempson, Marie Hamilton and Shann adapted with a coruscating 21st century feminist tilt without compromising Gay’s scathing attack on corruption, poverty, injustice and his contempt for high society’s taste for grandiose Italian opera.
And they did it wonderfully thanks to fine writing, some excellent jokes, a brilliant cast and a terrific set of bespoke songs by Ben Osborn.
They all needed to be at the very top of their game not to be overshadowed by the original Polly because it continues the story of one of theatre’s greatest anti-heroes, Macheath, a character whose global legend continues to grow due to regular revivals of The Beggar’s Opera and the unforgettable way Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill reimagined him in the 1920s as the gangster Mack The Knife in their sensational take on Gay’s story, The Threepenny Opera.
Fortunately for us, the Sharp Teeth team were indeed on fire. Shann totally dominated the stage as she kept up a flow of sometimes acidic, often uproarious observations and aphorisms, Hamilton nailed the chauvinistic egotism of Macheath as well as playing his spurned lover Lucy Lockett, Norma Butikofer skilfully combined the roles of wilful Jenny Diver and loathsome Mayor Ducat and Eleanor Nawal was perfect as Polly Peachum, giving us a fabulous portrayal of the abandoned bride as a spoilt, entitled millennial.
The production was full of such clever contemporary digs, none better than a sequence featuring three adolescent white boys in baseball caps trying desperately to emulate their hiphop idols.
Most of the two-hour show was laugh-a-minute stuff of the highest order. But at the end, after Macheath got his just deserts, the mood darkened as Shann turned to the audience and warned: Half of you are next. Beside her, Butikofer, Hamilton and Nawal stood in sinister, staring silence, their make-up smudged and running as if channelling supervillain The Joker.
It was a chilling – but absolutely apposite – ending for a show that pulled off the dazzling trick of paying tribute to Gay’s original while being wholly original itself. Theatre needs ingenuity like this.