Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs)
A thrillingly inventive modernisation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera at the Bristol Old Vic
This play is dedicated to Joan Littlewood, the creator of Fun Palace and visionary theatrical legend. It’s easy to see why. It’s a show that bursts into life from the very first minutes, where we’re introduced to a motley crew of characters making up an un-named city, brimming in corruption and depravity.
Leading the wrong’uns is Macheath, played with fierce exuberance by Dominic Marsh. He is a hired killer, and the play begins with him being given £10,000 in a suitcase for the murder of the Mayor (and, it turns out, his dog). So far, so easy to tell the baddies and the goodies (the Mayor is even called “Goodman”).
And yet crawling beneath the surface are ambiguous characters: take Mayoral hopeful Les Peachum and his wife Mrs Peacham who, it becomes clear, are putting on a show of goodness and benevolence, but hiding Machiavellian maliciousness. Or the character of Filch, much more nuanced and conflicted, who is the messenger boy for the Peachams, aware of their shady dealings, and yet unable to break out of the criminal underworld. Filch’s solo song, about the world rewarding the bad and giving nothing to the good, could be the rallying cry for the entire show. Special shout out must go to Georgia Frost in her role as Finch, played magnificently with just the right amount of physical theatre, comedy and pathos – a stand-out performance.
“Everybody’s afraid to tell the truth”, declares Widow Goodman on the eve of the new Mayoral election. It’s a sentiment that holds as much resonance now as it would have done in Gay’s early eighteenth-century opera on which this show is based. With its live band, heavy instrumentals and no-holds-barred performances, this is not a subtle show. But its strength is in its loudness: it tells a story of refusal to back down from corrupted power – and the human cost of such strength.
At turns showy, funny, irreverent, and tragic, it is a remake like no other, and an important testament to the transporting powers of live theatre.
Dead Dog in a Suitcase is on at the Bristol Old Vic until Sat 13 July. Tickets from £10.
Bristol Old Vic, King Street, Bristol BS1 4ED. Box office 0117 9877877
Words Alex Sayer. Photos Steve Tanner.