In the programme notes to Kneehigh’s latest show, director Mike Shepherd admits they came under pressure to change the title to something, well, a little more accessible. Dead dogs some thought don’t put bums on seats.
However, the theatre company refused to ditch the dead dog, which to be fair plays a central - if inanimate role - in this update of The Beggar’s Opera. John Gay’s 1728 work satirised the politics, poverty and injustice of 18th century life and Kneehigh’s take on the original is sweary, dirty and ever so slightly surreal. It’s also very funny.
The show opens with a murder. Goodman, a prospective politician about to lift the lid on tight web of corruption, and his dog are shot on the campaign trail and so begins a tale of corrupt policemen, bent businessmen and an underclass who will do anything to survive. Kneehigh productions are always inventive, stylish affairs and Dead Dog in a Suitcase is no different. A house band provides the music, which ranges from ska influenced numbers to 80s electro, as the cast sing their way through tales of sex, crime and blackmail. At the heart of the story is Macheath, played with a light comic touch by Dominic Marsh, a petty criminal who in moving up to the big league has lost any chance of redemption. Joining him in the show’s rogues gallery are Martin Hyder and Rina Fatania as Les Peacham and his grotesque wife. They have made a fortune from shampoo, concrete and pilchards, but any morals they had have been sacrificed for a cocktail cabinet and a wardrobe full of leopard print. When their lifestyle is threatened, they are prepared to sacrifice anything to preserver their status, including their own daughter.
When the Beggar’s Opera opened it shocked audiences who were used to a night at the theatre being a sophisticated affair. We’re less easily shocked these days and if anything, Kneehigh’s version could have done with turning up the volume on some of the production’s key numbers. It’s a minor criticism of a show which is slick, stylish and much like Gay’s original just a little bit grubby.
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, to November 7. 0113 213 7700, wyp.org.uk