Sunday, 22 June 2014

Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) – Liverpool Everyman – 21/06/2014

What is the world coming to?

In a tweet after the dress rehearsal, Everyman Playhouse AD Gemma Bodinetz commented that productions like Dead Dog in a Suitcase are what the Everyman was made for, and having watched it yesterday I see exactly what she means. It is anarchic, genre-defying genius.
Photo: Etta Murfitt
Yes, we expect the Everyman to continue presenting a broad and diverse range of work (which it has already demonstrated in this opening season) but its stock in trade has always been a brand of rebellious, thought-provoking theatre that simultaneously entertains and challenges, and this new work, co-produced with Cornish theatre company Kneehigh, falls squarely into that mould.

John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera has been a rich source of inspiration to writers, composers and performers almost constantly since it first appeared in 1728, and here Carl Grose has written a new script with music by Charles Hazlewood. It’s safe to say, since the original was without a proper script and was musically based on popular songs of the day, that any new version is going to be “freely adapted” but the aim, and certainly the result here, seems to have been to create a version of the tale for our times. Grose’s text retains the key characters and plot and manages to weave a tale that obliquely lampoons today’s establishment just as Gay aimed to do. Hazlewood’s musical settings are ebulliant and tongue in cheek, with a widely eclectic variety of styles and techniques brought together to create a world that defies any definitions of time or place.
The music is performed live on stage by the company, frequently acting and playing at the same time. I don’t believe I have ever seen someone act, play the violin and push a wheeled suitcase simultaneously, and this particular feat of multitasking was naturally performed by a female member of the cast!
As they warn you in some of the publicity, yes there is a dead dog in a suitcase, but as they play a sort of suitcasey version of the old shell game I was left wondering how even the cast could recall which one it was in. The health warning in the promo also promises us “...loud bangs, smoke, strong language and dodgy delights amidst corporate conspiracy, hit men, and songs culled from the edge of existence...” and we are served up with all this and more.
Directed as a tight ensemble by Mike Shepherd, the cast is large and the parts too numerous to attempt a full acknowledgement of them all, but I must unfairly pick out some personal highlights. Rina Fatania’s Mrs Peachum is full of biting humour, Audrey Brisson’s accordion playing Lucy Lockitt also takes advantage of her acrobatic training and Patrycja Kujawska’s Widow Goodman, complete with violin, has a mystical air of other-worldlyness about her. Dominic Marsh is our dashing highwayman Macheath who spends much of the play dodging the noose that hangs over centre stage throughout.
The set design by Michael Vale makes use of the full height and depth of the new Everyman’s space and that sense of space is highlighted by the skeletal nature of the structure, parts of which are surprisingly mobile. As much a part of the production’s look is Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting plot, which echoes the light and shade of Grose’s text and Hazlewood’s score. Here and there some pinpoint lighting accuracy is used to make actors and parts of the set almost float in mid-air.
Last night’s first preview performance received a full standing ovation even before it had properly ended and I’m sure it will be getting similar responses through its run. Here and there were occasional moments where the text was a little overwhelmed by the music, but never to the detriment of the narrative, and a couple of technical manoeuvres that momentarily pulled up the action will almost certainly become more fluid over the next day or two.
Final mention must go to the puppetry, under the direction of Sarah Wright. I won’t spoil it for anyone by describing the varied creations that appear, but let’s say that some would be instantly recognisable and familiar to John Gay, while others, large and small, take the parts of characters that may be troublesome if played by live actors. Puppetry is making a welcome return in British theatre in recent years, having previously fallen out of fashion, and it never ceases to amaze me how our minds can be fooled into seeing them as very much alive despite the frequently undisguised presence of their operators.
Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) plays at Liverpool Everyman until 12th July, after which it transfers to the Kneehigh Asylum at The Lost Gardens of Heligan from 30th August to 28th September. It will then appear at Bristol Old Vic from 6th to 26th October.


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