Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The Convicts Opera - Liverpool 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: Marie Kenny

A life with no imagination is a life of imprisonment. Your body could be confined in the darkest of places for months on end, with no hope of escape. But your mind is a different matter, for with imagination you can find your own freedom.

Thieves, arsonists, prostitutes, forgers, political prisoners and a vicar all feature in ‘The Convict’s Opera’ a co-production between Sydney Theatre Company and Out of Joint. Written by Stephen Jeffries, this is the story of a group of prisoners being transported from London to Australia. In order to occupy the long months of the voyage, the convicts are ordered by the Captain to rehearse John Gay’s ‘The Beggar’s Opera’. This play-within-a-play receives a modern spin with direction by Max Stafford-Clark.

The play begins with a beautifully sung version of ‘We Are Sailing’ and this is an insight into the musical delight ahead. With musical direction by Felix Cross, the cast consists of an extremely talented British-Australian ensemble, who double as actors and musicians. Throughout the play, the actors leap between playing the characters from the original opera and the convicts playing the characters… confusing at times.

The bulk of the scenes are from ‘The Beggar’s Opera’. Between scenes we meet the convicts and catch a glimpse of their real experiences onboard the convict ship. But it is a glimpse, for we learn very little about them except their crimes. There are parallels drawn between the convicts and the events in the play, but they don’t carry much emotion it has to be said.

Instead, it is the humour that carries this play, Max Stafford-Clark releases the 18th century with the witty interjection of modern songs such as Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’ and The Proclaimers ‘500 Miles’.

Stunning performances come from Amelia Cormack and Ali McGregor as Macheath’s love rivals. Juan Jackson is outstanding in the role of the muscular Macheath. As the unjustly accused Harry Morgan he throws himself into the role of Macheath and even jumps ship, as he claims to identify with the hero so much. In an uncomfortable scene after he is caught, he is told he will face a hanging and once again manages to escape. The remaining convicts onboard cheer him to safety, united by their experiences.

This is no thought provoking ‘Talking to Terrorists’. However, it is a larger than life, fun-filled, highly entertaining musical treat which takes humour and imagination and runs with it.

The Convicts Opera runs at the Liverpool Playhouse until Sat 14th March 2009
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