Pros: Pitch-perfect combination of music, visuals and words, with some insanely good puppetry.
Cons: Moments of pathos occasionally glossed over in favour of gags.
Shoreditch Town Hall, the ‘grandest vestry hall in London’ is Kneehigh’s final stop on its 2015 revival tour of the acclaimed Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) – a joyful reworking of John Gay’s classic satire The Beggars Opera. The programme describes the show as a ‘twisted morality tale’: ever-lucky hit man Macheath kills a politician and his dog, evades the law, deflowers daughters and escapes the looming gallows by putting someone else’s head in the noose. But what does it matter? Everyone else is (or becomes) a crook or a killer too.
Shoreditch’s chandelier-studded main hall is an uneasy home for Michael Vale’s set – a squat, rusted metal-and-wood structure flanked by music festival-style lighting scaffolds. Sitting darkly in the gorgeous hall like a steampunk-inspired sit-in, the set is a constant in-yer-face reminder that the play exists to expose other ‘dark hearts’, greed and corruption which thrive in a city full of irredeemable crooks. With similar uneasiness, a candy-striped puppet booth sits in the middle of the set from which Mr Punch (operated by Sarah Wright) appears now and again, offering viciously funny commentary on the stage action.
In Kneehigh’s everyday dystopia, Charles Hazlewood’s glorious score does more than words could to set scenes and cement characters. After a dirge-like ‘last post’ signalling the death of Mayor Goodman (and his dog, stuffed in a suitcase) a steady stream of characters appear to a jukebox of tunes. Crooked merchant Peachum swaggers about to a stripped-down funk tune that draws crooked policeman Lockit (‘don’t forget you’re in my pocket’) like a snake-charmer. Macheath (Dominic Marsh), the play’s cheeky-charming protagonist, swaggers even better, singing like he just doesn’t care beneath a huge sparkling disco ball. Peachum’s well-meaning sidekick Filch (a show-stealingly good Jack Shalloo) has his own pop song, and ‘ninja butterfly’ Lucy Lockit sings the blues. Their characters are immeasurably stronger for it.
The humour starts off savage and only gets darker as things progress. Mr Punch pops up more often to gloat over each character’s lowest ebb, but director Mike Shephed keeps things on the playful side of all-out grotesque. Mrs Peachum (Rina Fatania)’s streak of criminal kingpin menace is made even more terrifying by her hilarious on-stage yoga routine and silly hairstyle. Puppet vignettes were bizarre and triumphant: at one point a herd of screaming, swearing babies attack Macheath, at another, a blue-clad puppet priest blesses a marriage from inside a golden cement mixer. Paratroopers slither down a giant playground slide built into the set, and a fireman’s pole becomes a transvestite pole dancer’s plaything, yet another temptation for Macheath. A noose (or is it a kids’ rope swing?) hangs above everything.
Macheath might escape the (politician-manipulated) law, but no-one gets off scot free. Which is a good thing: Polly Peachum’s transformation from white-clad ingenue to haggard grey avenging angel (Angela Hardie made it look easy) is what makes her character memorable. The ‘eruption of corruption’ ends in a cataclysm – a shoot-out and an explosion of golden foil shrapnel. Perhaps it’s because Mr Punch saw it coming so gleefully, perhaps because the dead dog finally DOES appear in the right suitcase, it’s impossible not to forgive Macheath. He’s no worse than anyone else, after all. Right?
This is a blisteringly funny show with an infectious playfulness that’s all too rare. True, moments of reflection were sometimes drowned by the general tide of great gags, and once or twice the energy dipped enough for me to notice time passing. But it was brave: rules were joyfully broken. And judging from the constant ring-side buzz among the packed-out audience, we loved the show the more for it.
Writer: Carl Grose
Director: Mike Shepherd
Music composed and directed by: Charles Hazlewood
Booking Until: 12 December 2015
Booking Link: http://shoreditchtownhall.com/theatre-performance/whats-on/event/deaddog