Sometimes in London the venue affects your mood. Kicking your way through the rotting veg or chicken carcases of a street market towards a dingy hall in Hoxton or Kilburn demands a wellspring of optimism to meet the play with an open mind.
Not so at Regent’s Park, whose well-established and well-run Open Air venture regularly inspires critics to scour the thesaurus for epithets like ‘bosky’ and ‘sylvan’ even when the thing’s set indoors.
Well-spoken couples bring picnic spreads which feature chermoula and quinoa alongside the ‘rather good brie’ and bottle of claret nudging a crossword-completed Telegraph in the recycled hempen tote. A sudden chill presages symphonic zipping up of Barbours. The repertoire is a conservative blend of Shakespeare, Musical and Literary. The seasonal staff are polite. The ice creams are organic.
If Waitrose did theatre, this is what it would be like.
Its Beggar’s Opera is staged in a quest for 18th century authenticity. Champion designer William Dudley (whose wife Lucy Bailey directs) has raided Hogarth’s illustrations of ‘Gin Lane’ for his portable Newgate prison jangling with nooses and chains but also tumbrils strewn with flowers, silks and pillows emphasizing the contrast between the ruffians and prostitutes who populate the story. Arranger Roddy Skeaping (whose wife Lucie plays Jenny Diver) has orchestrated 69 snatches of folk song for period instruments including the cittern and lute.
At first the audience seemed to love it, tittering at every mention of ‘jade’ ‘whore’ ‘prick’ and ‘hussy’, at the joky references to marital duty from which ‘most’ women would welcome their husband’s execution as a release, and feigning amused shock when the skirt-lifting tarts remind us that knickers weren’t invented yet.
The first act is largely exposition and those who left in the interval missed the fun of a couple of well-staged fights – movement by Maxine Doyle of Punchdrunk – including a hilarious one between a cruiserweight Beverley Rudd as pregnant Lucy Lockit and her love rival Polly played by the bantam Flora Spencer-Longhurst who seemed to fly from the fist whenever Rudd hit her. Act II also featured the best performance of the evening, Parklife-guesting Phil Daniels’ sly and earthy jailer Lockit.
‘Musicals’ purists will be disappointed that the short ballads never erupt into a sustained production number, but the beauty of the Regent’s Park repertoire is that all tastes are eventually satisfied and ‘Crazy For You’ opens on July 28.
'Beggar's Opera' continues at the Open Air Theatre, Inner Circle, Regent's Park until 23 July with evening performances at 7.45pm and matinees on Thursday and Saturday at 2.15pm. The show runs about 2 hours 40 minutes including interval. You may bring food, drink and refreshments and there are picnic tables and both a self-service restaurant and barbecue stall at most performances. Tickets cost from £19 to £46, some discount offers are currently circulating. Telephone bookings (£1 extra fee) on 0844 826 4242
The author received complimentary press tickets from The Corner Shop PR.