Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love stories), Kneehigh Theatre. Theatre Royal Brighton, 9 May 2019
Kneehigh’s touring production is an adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera, a fact I wish I’d grasped before sitting down to all two and a half hours of it. Chiefly because I could have prepared myself for the shock of a show I kept thinking was as if Brecht had written a rock musical. Which, in a way, was exactly what it was, since Gay’s 18th century musical satire inspired Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. Not that we were short of attention-grabbing devices – from the larger than life characters, the raucous original score by Charles Hazlewood, pyrotechnics, gun shots, puppetry, an alll-singing, all-dancing, mostly-multi-instrumentalist cast – and even a real hanging, many of the signature tricks we’ve come to expect from this talented and much-loved Cornish company were here – plus more. And they needed to be, because at such a length, and with such a labyrinthine plot line, attention could easily have wavered.
The story follows Macheath, the lovable rogue anti-hero, who is hired by dodgy wannabe Mayor and king of the cons, Peachum, to assasinate Mayor Goodman. Macheath marries Polly Peachum, but is also involved with the policeman’s dodgy daughter, Lucy Lockit. There are lots of short scenes and set pieces, with loves, losses, explosions and a number of suitcase mix-ups (which one holds the corpse and which the lady’s smalls? Bit of an anticlimactic missed opportunity when that’s revealed, sadly). This is a dark and corrupt world, where dogs get shot, along with their owners. We are shown a society in decline, where everything is to late to be saved – “it’s not the world’s fault, it’s our fault” – a message intended to resonates with the state of the world at large. We only see the error of our choices when we are dying, when it’s too late. It’s a simple message, and in some ways perhaps too simple, for this political satire somehow lacked a witty moral, for all its laughs. “Burn it down, start again” seemed to me too simplistic, and I waited for a twist, yet none came.
Part of the problem with political satires is the characters are generally none of them very likeable. Perhaps this is meant to reflect the real world – but it doesn’t make for much emotional connection with the actors. Mrs Peachum’s bawdy, tacky twisted nasty character stood out as did Filch/the jailer (whose song “I’d Do the Right Thing (if only I could) was a personal highlight). The Police Officer in his black kilt belting out punk ballads with a megaphone was another triumph. But occasionally believable acting seemed to come second to belting show-tunes or accomplished musicianship.
The musical score was excellent (if ear-bleedingly loud), and we journeyed through blues, ska, punk and Ian Drury-like numbers alongside more traditional ballads. The show’s stories were driven along by the music. There seemed to be a few tech issues with mics which was a little distracting however, but surely a risk with such a complex set, so many technical complexities and so frantic a pace. The use of puppetry was mostly cleverly devised, although the finale with the dog’s skeleton was a wasted opportunity – he was brought in and was an impressive moment but then left on the floor in a heap – I might have hung him up for the audience to see.
In sum, rich clever theatre, impressive and engaging. However, was I moved by any of it? Apart from by the need to stretch my legs at the end – no.
*** Three Stars