The Threepenny Opera

The Octagon Theatre, Bolton; Saturday 28th October 2017

Photo by Richard Davenport

Set in the not too distant future, The Threepenny Opera portrays a Britain where the mystery that is Brexit is about to be solved, a Britain where King Charles III is about to be crowned and where Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg vow to be tough on crime and punishment.

Based on an original critique of the perils of a capitalist world, director David Thacker has taken this classic story and shoved it into the 21st century with a firm kick up the backside, adding in some amusing prophecies on how things will soon be and a very, very large dose of some of the foulest language you’re ever likely to hear in a theatre.

The acting performances are some of the finest I’ve seen in Greater Manchester this year: David Birrell holds the limelight in the lead role of Mack The Knife, coming across as a vicious and unhinged maniac, but never because of any on-stage physical aggression or outward swagger, which Birrell could easily have resorted to. Instead Mack is a much more terrifying villain because Birrell portrays him as an entirely calm and perfectly normal honest London geezer. So well portrayed is Mack’s arrogant presumption that he’s never done anything wrong that you can’t help but feel sympathy for the character at times. There’s something about David Birrell’s physical appearance: his voice, his intense and committed stare, his mature and confident middle-aged appearance; all of it combines perfectly to create a truly insane monster who you should probably cross the road to avoid.

But despite Birrell’s excellent performance, the real stars of the show are the collectively cheeky triumvirate who play the Peachum family. Anna Wheatley takes on the role of Polly Peachum, an infuriatingly naive and clearly spoilt little brat who ultimately just needs to grow up, worsened by her self-destructive deployment of feminine charm in order to get her own way with men. Coupled with the comedy genius that is Eric Potts and Sue Devaney as the parents, this trio of thickly-northern-accented schemers deliver a hilarious and 100% believable image of a bickering family unit running around like over-excited puppies chasing each other’s tails because they’re all too individually self-obsessed to stop and think about what they’re doing.

This doesn’t feel in any way like an opera, or even a musical – there are plenty of songs being sung, but such is the quality of the overall production that they naturally seem to merge into the wider experience. Given the previous acting history of some of the performers, The Threepenny Opera is probably best described as an omnibus showing of a soap opera – a couple of hours of furious and intense action where a lot gets said, a lot gets done, and then you still want to know what will happen next.

The Threepenny Opera is so, so dark and so genuinely funny. It may contain some of the foulest language that you’ll hear anywhere in the arts and entertainment world but the extreme use of profanity fits in perfectly, taking out the bad language would adversely harm this production – it seems to add a punchy realism, liberating all the performers to deliver at a much more furious pace, which ultimately makes it so compelling to watch.

There are probably only five or six shows that I’ve seen in Greater Manchester this year that I’d happily pay to go and see again: this would definitely be one of them.

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