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I have just this minute come home from The Lyceum’s latest offering: a world premiere of Vanishing Point’s newest production, a devised peice based on ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ by John Gay. This peice, however, bears almost no resemblance to the 1728 ballad.

Firstly, credit where it is due. The director, Matthew Lenton, makes no secret of his inspiration: film noir, and comic-book glamour. Think Sin City, or V for Vendetta. Sexy stuff, with big guns and suspense and fabulous costumes.

The trailer for the show, at least, promises that this gritty dystopia can be translated onto the stage, (well, onstage or down an alleyway…)

It is going to be, then, heavy on the looks.

And there certainly are fabulous costumes a-plenty in this production. In this, if nothing else, it lives up to the movies. Split – with a nifty trapdoor on stage – between a rich post-diluvian society and the thieves who inhabit its underworld, there are two competing aesthetics at work in the production: impractical glamour and a militaristic uniform of curious cast-offs. Costume Designer Eve Lambert does a magnificent job:
the upper world boast saucer-round hats, double bowler hats, and hats which accentuate the angles of the face. There are outsize ties, full skirts, and faces covered in surprisingly normal-looking stocking material. All is impractical glamour and showy materials, hinting at lives of leisure.

The underworld is alive with grime, metal shouler-pads, gas masks (a slightly cliched low), and looks as if the cast raided Armstrong’s and then took the clothes for a really really rough night out on the town. It is brilliant, youthful, vibrant, and really quite wearable looking (I was tempted to nip backstage and raid their costume box…)

The high-tech set has some problems: a projection screen forms the background of the upper-world, and cannot really be seen from the upper circle, an unfortunate irony in a class satire. The actors stagger around on a sand dune. Aesthetically pleasing, but neither inkeeping with the supposedly urban landscape nor practical: instead the actors just look constantly drunk.

But it is the script which transforms this production from potential glory to dreary disaster. Mimicking the sparse dialogue of certain graphic novels is all very well, but it depends on several simple principles:
all speech must forward the plot, or it is superfluous. All dialogue must be highly stylized, or it ceases to support the overall tone of the piece. And the dialogue must be limited: a single exhange, perhaps, per ‘frame’ of action. This script, which possibly sent Gay spinning in his grave, dragged along with a total abscence of pace or urgency. There was no suspense, and an overload of faux-political speechifying. And listen, guys. No matter how great a gimmick it is, if the man talking through the voice distorter cannot be understood, then it is never, ever going to be impressive, merely indulgent and frustrating. I fully recognise the power of some devised theatre, but this amply demonstrated the advantages of having a pre-prepare script.

Not even the acting could save it. Despite the supremely talented Sandy Grierson’s best efforts, most of the acting mistook hysteria for stylised melodrama, and the result was a constant confusion of wild pitchings in an attempt to find the tone.

The music, written and performed by Glasgow-based pop art band ‘A Band Called Quinn’ was good fun, bu nowhere near slick enough to provide a soundtrack to something aspiring to glamour. Rather, it felt a little bit like going to see a decent band who spoil your evening by insisting that they are joined by some actors who also sing from time to time. Most odd.

The glamour, the guns, the setting and the script: none of these quite lived up to the play’s big-screen inspirations. Furthermore, it was two hours long with no interval.

The Lyceum usually have a winter program with high points and low points, but despite innovation and moments of aesthetic brilliance, this is a definite low. Go for the costumes, go for the set – even, if you are a fan, go for the band. But for heaven’s sake don’t go if you have any fondness for ‘A Beggar’s Opera’, or, indeed, for dramatic writing.

http://www.lyceum.org.uk/webpages/show_info.php?id=9100

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