Monday, May 15, 2017
The Beggar's Opera at Storyhouse, Chester
When Chester's Gateway Theatre closed its doors for the very last time ten years ago, there was the expectation that it would be replaced by a performing arts centre called the Northgate Development. However, the Northgate plans were put on hold in 2008, and it wasn't until 2012 that Cheshire West and Chester Council revealed an ambitious vision to transform the city centre's derelict Odeon cinema into a replacement theatre and picture house combined. This vision widened still further the following year with the announcement that the old Odeon building would be renovated and extended to become a cultural arts hub for the entire city.
Last week saw Chester's decade in the cultural wilderness finally come to an end with the grand opening of Storyhouse, a £37 million arts centre which incorporates an 800-seat auditorium, a 100-seat cinema, plus the city library, a community performance and rehearsal space, a restaurant, two bars, and a children's storytelling space. To be blunt, Storyhouse is nothing short of magnificent.
When you walk around it, the possibilities seem endless. Retaining its Grade II listed art-deco charm and heritage in the original structure, Storyhouse welcomes people through its doors from 8am 'til late. Children have their own library where they have story readings, workshops, fun events and activities; the cinema screen hosts both contemporary blockbusters and beloved classics, as well as arthouse films; the repertory ensemble is the largest in the UK outside of London, and this summer is staging four in-house productions performed both in the Storyhouse auditorium and outside at the city's Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre; and the restaurant provides Mediterranean food such as flatbreads and kofta to complement two licensed bars.
The floorplan is like a rabbit warren, but getting lost in Storyhouse is part of its charm. You can climb a flight of stairs and turn right and find yourself at the opposite end of a room you thought you'd just walked out of. There are cut-throughs and corners and corridors to other sections and levels, a bright red column of steps accessing the theatre and the Garret bar which overlooks the city, and lining almost every wall around you there are books, books, books. The entire building is the library. It's still divided into sections/ genres, but it's all around you, when you're eating, when you're typing, when you're drinking. It's like walking around inside a giant encyclopedia.
Storyhouse's inaugural season of plays comprises two Shakespeares (the populist A Midsummer Night's Dream and the more heavyweight Julius Caesar), family favourite Alice in Wonderland, and a real wildcard in the form of the 18th century musical The Beggar's Opera. All four will be performed according to a meticulously planned schedule throughout the summer, both indoors and outdoors (except the adults-only The Beggar's Opera).
The Beggar's Opera as told by Storyhouse is not an opera; it's more of a mixed-media musical, combining folk with rock, balladry with indie. A handful of the songs, overseen by composer Harry Blake, wouldn't be out of place on Blur's Britpop behemoth The Great Escape.
Gay wrote The Beggar's Opera in three Acts, but director Alex Clifton presents it in two (the first running to a lengthy but not arduous 85 minutes). The story is straightforward, of a devilishly handsome highwayman forced to choose between the daughters of two reprehensible crime lords. Alex Mugnaioni is magnificent as Macheath (aka Mack the Knife, although the Brecht/ Weill song rightly does not feature here), strutting around the thrust stage like Adam Ant and Captain Jack Sparrow's love-child, oozing sex appeal and charisma from every pore. He's the sort of character women want to be with and men want to just be, although Macheath's seedier side might make some think twice about that. Make no mistake, Mugnaioni is the star of this show, and every time he's off stage you find yourself waiting for him to come back.
Playing young, sweet, naive Polly Peachum is the stunning Charlotte Miranda-Smith, who strikes a beautiful balance between making Polly as thick as two short planks and as endearing as a true innocent. Miranda-Smith delivers some corking gags, such as the scene where she wonders why tumblers are called tumblers, or when Lucy announces that her unborn child is to be called Janey: "Oh Janey, that's lovely! Is that short for Jane?" It brings the house down.
Elsewhere, Charlotte Gorton triples up as Mrs Peachum, Mrs Vixen and Mrs Trapes and is fantastic as each; Baker Mukasa is furtively downtrodden as Filch (despite the character only really being there as a deus ex machina); and Nancy Sullivan is cocky and resilient as Lucy Lockit. There's also solid support from Tom Connor as (among others) molly Suky Tawdry, Jonathan Dryden Taylor as Peachum's arch-enemy Lockit, and Caolan McCarthy as the titular Beggar with a twinkle in his step (he plays a mean piano too).
The score is rip-roaringly entertaining, played by a live band clearly having plenty of fun, and while Rob Halliday's lighting might sometimes be in the wrong place at the wrong time (then again, maybe that's the actors?), and perhaps a tad too low on occasions, it still feels atmospheric and moody when it needs to be.
The Beggar's Opera is a stunning opening gambit for Storyhouse's inaugural season and shamelessly aims to entertain, titillate and challenge, and that's what quality theatre is all about. This will make you laugh (a lot) and it'll definitely shock you in parts, but not in any bad way. It's theatre that provokes, and if Storyhouse's other three shows can do the same in their own way, there's most definitely a bright future ahead for Chester's internationally unique arts hub, the beating cultural heart of Deva!
Writer: John Gay, adapted by Glyn Maxwell
Director: Alex Clifton
Musical director/ composer: Harry Blake
Cast: Rebecca Birch (Belly Trull & Wat Dreary); Tom Connor (Suky Tawdry & Ben Budge); Jonathan Dryden Taylor (Lockit & Tom Ragg); Daniel Goode (Peachum); Charlotte Gorton (Mrs Peachum, Mrs Vixen & Mrs Trapes); Barbara Hockaday (Jenny Diver & Jem Twitchers); Greg Joy (Fred Frodsham); Charlotte Miranda-Smith (Polly Peachum); Caolan McCarthy (Beggar & Matt of the Mint); Alex Mugnaioni (Macheath); Baker Mukasa (Filch); Anna Leong Brophy (Molly Brazen & Madmazell); nancy Sullivan (Lucky Lockit); Hannah Mackenzie (Bessie Doxy); Laura Wilson (Bessie Doxy)
The Beggar's Opera runs at Storyhouse until August 19th, 2017. Performance reviewed: May 13th, 2017. Alice in Wonderland runs from May 19th to July 9th; A Midsummer Night's Dream from June 9th to July 16th; and Julius Caesar from June 23rd to July 30th.
Storyhouse website (retrieved May 15 2017)
Storyhouse - How a Dream Became a Reality (retrieved May 15 2017)