Friday, 27 February 2009

The Convicts Opera - West Yorkshire Playhouse

The Convicts Opera by Stephen Jeffreys
Based on The Beggar's Opera by John Gay
Director: Max Stafford-Clark
Music Arranger: Felix Cross
Reviewer: Sara Jackson

Amongst the usual confusion that people seem to have when arriving at the theatre and trying to find their seats (Row H, seat 1 – How can it be that hard) there was an added confusion over the program. On arrival I was presented with the script for the play, which had all the information on cast and note’s from the director inside it.

I have to say that it was lovely to see something in return for the price people pay from programs and a welcome change from the usual adverts and dross that fill a £5 program at most productions, and also a great memorabilia for the production.

Adapted from The Beggars Opera by John Gay, The convict’s opera is set on a ship transporting convicts to Australia. Written by Stephen Jeffrey’s and directed by Max Stafford-Clark this production sees Out of Joint Theatre teaming up with The Sydney Theatre Company to create a stunning piece that has to be seen in order to understand just how wonderful it is.

From it’s Dark eerie opening through to it’s dramatic conclusion this play keeps you griped as the actors effortlessly play multiple roles and depict the story of the characters on the ship and the play that the convicts are performing. It is difficult to explain the storyline as there are effectively two stories to the play, that of the convicts on the ship who all have different reasons for being there.

Grace Madden (Ali McGregor) is an arsonist who changes her ways when she is shown kindness. Ben Barnwell (Brian Protheroe) is a coin clipper, who is still making coins on board the ship and we also meet political prisoner Phebe Groves (Karena Fernandez) who is plotting a mutiny through the journey. These and all the story’s of the prisoners on board are all uncovered through monologues and asides as the convicts step out of play rehearsals to talk to us directly.

The play within the play is just as dramatic and draws parallels with the convicts own lives and experiences.

In the course of this production we see music from every genre you can think of including music from Puccini, Bach, Marvin Gay and even The Proclaimers. There were giggles of delight from the audience every time a song we recognised began and we saw how clever its use was.

The set is minimal and very bland which constantly reminded you of the plight of the characters who were desperately trying to stay sane while spending months with only the same bleak sights to look at. There were audience members sat in boxes on the stage who became part of the performance when characters delivered their asides directly to them and at one point stole a handbag from them.

I always think it is a sign of a fabulous company when you cannot pick out one particular performance from the actors. There were no weak links, all the actors gave strong and memorable performances in their roles and seemed to move effortlessly from one character to another.

Max Stafford-Clark’s direction is clearly well researched and never fails. I would recommend this production to anybody who love’s theatre, opera, music or just a spectacular performance.

The Convicts Opera runs at the WYP until Sat 28th Feb 2009
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