It’s an exciting opportunity… not to mention a real privilege, to be allowed a sneak preview of a theatre company rehearsing for their latest production. But that’s exactly what I get from Kneehigh who are currently prepping their production of Dead Dog In A Suitcase (and Other Love Songs) at Home, Manchester. The show opens there officially on the 11th of September and then heads out on tour around the UK.
As I settle into a front row seat I’m presented with a view of the entire thirteen strong company. To my left, there’s a band, featuring guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and a whole plethora of assorted instruments. To my right stands a traditional Punch and Judy theatre and a veritable menagerie of creepy looking puppets (always a good sign) including a row of rosy faced babies in a cot, who, we’re assured, are the ‘bastard offspring of Macheath.’
Director Mike Shepherd and musical director Charles Hazlewood stand up and say a few words. The show is, of course, an adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay, (1728) itself radically reworked by Bertholt Brecht as The Threepenny Opera in 1928. ‘This version,’ says Shepherd, ’gives the Beggar’s Opera back its teeth.’ He tells us that the story is a musical satire, prescient for our times, and that it’s a perfect reflection of an age of austerity and outrage – ‘a cathartic production in every sense of the word.’
Hazlewood adds that it’s been a wonderful privilege working with Cornwall-based Kneehigh Theatre Company, and says that their marvellous generosity of spirit has injected a sense of humanity into what is, at heart, a bleak and harrowing storyline.
‘The play begins with the contract killing of the city Mayor,’ says Shepherd. ‘Which will give you some idea of how dark the story is.’
Then without further ado, we’re treated to a ten minute selection. The band punch out a lively reggae rhythm, the cast leap into action, there is singing and dancing and movement and puppets – and I sit there mesmerised by the way the show is coming together, after only a relatively short rehearsal time.
Afterwards I ask if I might have a quick chat with MacHeath (Dominic Marsh) and Polly Peachum (Angela Hardie), so we seek out a quiet space where I can record their answers without too much background noise. I begin by pointing out that the pair are about to take on one of the most infamous duos in theatrical history. How do they feel about that challenge?
Angela: It’s very exciting to be able to take on these characters, because there are so many dimensions to them. They’re not just good or bad, weak or strong, they have the full run of humanity with all its glory and ugliness and for young actors that’s just an exceptional opportunity.
Did they have any qualms about taking on the roles?
Dominic: No, I think that one of the healthiest things about the rehearsal process is that deference is left outside the door. The Beggar’s Opera is called the longest running musical and all those juke box musicals in the West End that we’re so familiar with these days probably stem from it. But there were no qualms at all.
I point out that there are a lot of different disciplines to master in this show – acting, singing, dancing, musicianship, puppetry. It must be a tall order trying to perform so many of them to the best of their abilities. Exhausting too, I shouldn’t wonder.
Dominic: It is an incredibly tiring, but very rewarding way to work, but a lot of Kneehigh projects are like that, they’re these big, chaotic shows that create a whole world on the stage. Everything’s so visceral and powerful, there’s light and shade, dark humour, wonderful romantic moments, everything you could possibly want.
What qualities, I wonder, do the actors think they share with their onstage personas? Does Angela identify with Polly?
Angela: Oh yes, I hope so! I get to do such a great journey with this piece, I start out naïve and find out about life the hard way. I think anyone who’s ever had their heart broken… and I have… will identify with her. Mind you, I haven’t quite graduated to running a gang yet, but I suppose there’s still time…
And Dominic? MacHeath is surely nobody’s idea of a positive role model?
Dominic: He is rather dark. I’m not sure I identify with him on many levels, but we all have within us the kernel of good and evil, we’re all capable of being misunderstood and I think that MacHeath has his own valid reasons for going down the route he goes down. He’s almost like a Robin Hood figure, shining a light on the corporate conspiracies that are going on all around him, which we all know are happening all the time. When we started rehearsing this there was that stuff about MP’s expenses and… well, you just have to look at what’s happening now…
For both of them it’s their first appearance at Home, Manchester’s hub for the performing arts. What do they make of the place?
Angela: It’s lovely, it’s such an exciting place to work, it’s all brand new. We’ve been bowled over by how friendly and accommodating everyone is.
Dominic: There’s such an exciting buzz about this piece and also about the venue. I think the two of them will slot together really well.
So they’re both looking forward to opening night?
They tell me that they can’t wait.
Well, I assure them, that makes three of us.
(Our review of Dead Dog In A Suitcase will follow soon.)