A mostly facetious shoot-out concludes “The Villains’ Opera,” director Tim Supple’s 21st century update of John Gay’s 1728 “Beggar’s Opera,” but by the time the gunplay arrives, the carnage is too much too late: This woebegone production has long ago shot itself in the foot. There’s nothing wrong in principal with transposing ahead nearly 300 years Gay’s caustic take on the anarchic age of then-prime minister Robert Walpole; after all, if it worked for Brecht and Weill in 1928, with “The Threepenny Opera,” why shouldn’t a similar conceit feed the gifted (on paper, at least) team of writer-adapter Nick Dear, fresh from his feisty treatment in the same auditorium of Gorky’s “Summerfolk,” and composer Stephen Warbeck, a 1999 Oscar-winner for “Shakespeare in Love”? But that’s assuming that the creators, the wildly erratic Supple included, have anything to say beyond climbing on the modish bandwagon of London criminal chic currently being celebrated on screen in “Gangster No. 1” and “Love, Honour, and Obey,” to cite just two films trading on the fuss caused — in Britain, at least — by “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.”
Instead, notwithstanding the occasional nod to hip-hop and rap in Warbeck’s dreary score, “The Villains’ Opera” mostly comes across as too many well-meaning middle-class National Theater performers trying to look and act tough, the game (if miscast) lead, Alexander Hanson, chief among them. There’s far more drama — not to mention a sense of the precariousness of London living at the moment — in a ride home any evening on one of the city’s all-night buses than there is in any of the three hours of japery and posturing on display here.
The aim may have been to widen the National’s public by catering to a younger crowd, in which case Britain’s so-called “yoof” will likely be dismayed at the prevailing inauthenticity just as their parents are put off for an entirely different reason — the squandering of NT resources on an unwitting example of the very conspicuous consumption that would seem to be one of a scattershot text’s many targets.
The evening has barely begun before Clive Rowe’s expensively dressed Mr. Big, a garden-loving hood, is jollying us along in audience participation: a neat attempt to cozy up to the theatergoer before going in for the kill. Alas, any putative assault on the jugular never arrives, even if signposts of contemporary London ceaselessly do — from the Millennium Dome and North Greenwich station (site of the production’s most phonily lachrymose scene) to the poster for “The Beach” that appears on the bedroom wall of the lovesick Polly Peachum (Madeleine Worrall). Robert Innes Hopkins’ design, indeed, is nothing if not evocative, even if it lumbers on to the Olivier stage in a way that his work never does at, say, the nearby Young Vic.
Dear’s story approximates the contours of its Gay and Brecht forbears, beginning with the falsely “heartwarming” ending. As before, Polly must vie with Lucy Lockit — daughter of the corrupt “copper” played by Oliver Cotton — for the affections of Hanson’s Macheath, a serial charmer not long out of the army who pursues his life of villainy convinced, wrongly as it happens, that he is “charmed.”
Meanwhile, back at the “boozer” (the Flower of Kent pub, to be specific), David Burt’s enjoyably broad Peachum — a publican as well as justice of his own highly peculiar peace — instills fear in men and women alike, while his wife (Beverley Klein, her perf pitched, as usual, a dangerous whisker short of caricature) totters about in furry pink high heels. Early on, she sings a lament for the lot of women at the hands of their brutish and fearsome men.
Come the second act, and the same bleating comic-book creation is delivering up a paean to “a woman’s ardor, flowing to the sea.” The lobotomy must have happened during intermission.
Visitors to London won’t get many references or much of the pointscoring (one of the better lines invokes schooling in south London’s tony Dulwich), though sexual banter about “my Eiffel Tower” and “your baguette” remains pretty unambiguous. But it’s the failure of “The Villains’ Opera” to convey any sense of its own serious stakes that will tire out even those who know every back alley of Woolwich, London SE18, where the show is largely set.
After “Closer,” which handled the milieu brilliantly, there should be a moratorium on lap-dancing clubs on stage, even if one of this show’s strippers, rather amusingly, is a Mayfair sexpot who gyrates away while reciting Lady Macbeth. You don’t have to be American, either, to question the moralizing of a piece content to blame the U.S. for changing “innocent” Britain into a nation of “psycho gunslingers.” (It ain’t that easy, folks.)
The real nadir of sorts comes earlier on during “Street Crime,” a number for the weapon-happy gang staged atop a car that they have wrecked. How could such nice, fresh-faced actors do such a thing, you think? Along with: at least the rebels in “Footloose” were fun.