The Convict’s Opera is a play within a play (technically, a ballad opera within a ballad opera): specifically John Gay’s 18th Century box office smash, The Beggar’s Opera, as performed by a disparate group of convicts on their voyage of transportation to Australia. So it is in effect two period dramas, about a hundred years apart. This gets… complicated! So much so that, while discussing the plot in the bar in the interval, a complete stranger asked me whether I had the faintest idea what was going on. Now, I wouldn’t normally bore you with background history, but the general consensus in the bar was that you were at a serious disadvantage if you didn’t know The Beggar’s Opera; so hopefully this might help.
The Beggar’s Opera, written in 1728, was based on one of the most remarkable true stories in the British criminal history: that of the handsome young thief Jack Sheppard, and his daring escapes from the custody of the much loved and admired head of the police: Jonathan Wild, the legendary ‘Thief-Taker General’. The British public was gripped by this battle of wits, and stunned when they learnt that not only was this ‘thief-taker general’ in league with Sheppard… he was actually running pretty much the whole of the London criminal underworld! So this is a fantastic true story: part The Godfather, part Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. And with subject matter like this it should be easy to make, at the very least, first-rate entertainment.
I really really wanted to like this production - not least because I know one of the cast members. Thankfully, he was great (phew!), as were pretty much all of the cast. There’s no orchestra and no microphones; they play their own instruments on stage, and there’s some really beautiful harmony singing. The songs are mainly from the original Beggar’s Opera, but there are also modern pop songs such as Sailing and I Fought The Law. The music and the performances are delivered with energy and skill.
The problem, I felt, was the writing. The Beggar’s Opera was written for an audience that already knew a great deal about the real characters it was based on, so there wasn’t much need for its author to explain the plot. It’s not so easy for a modern audience, unfamiliar with this true story, to follow, especially through the ‘untreated’ early 18th Century language. As if this wasn’t confusing enough, the fact that the actors are constantly leaping between playing the original opera’s characters and the ship’s acting troupe makes it very difficult to stay engaged.
This is frustrating, because The Convict’s Opera feels like it has all the ingredients for a great theatrical experience. Sadly, even a great cast, good tunes and a fine set can’t make it rise above its rather messy and overambitious script.