Playwright Stephen Jeffreys’ “The Convict’s Opera,” a wildly ambitious but ill-conceived riff on John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera,” features a rag-tag clutch of British convicts bound by ship for Australia who, at the captain’s pleasure, are given permission to stage a play. Although helmer Max Stafford-Clark and his bicontinental cast and crew deliver a mostly entertaining show , in the end the central premise can’t overcome untenable plot points and demands for too great a suspension of disbelief from auds.
Story features the ship’s convicts rehearsing scenes for a production of “The Beggar’s Opera,” while interactions between the convict-actors adds another layer. But the reality is that Britain’s criminals and underclass who were dispatched to Oz on creaking convict vessels in the early 19th century endured grim conditions under harsh military control, and certainly did not stage plays. Time above deck was a rare extravagance and only granted to prevent disease, so the upbeat enthusiasm of the group of performing convicts shown here jars with all previous portrayals of the era.
Minimal set designed by Dale Ferguson features a centerstage ramp leading to a raised platform with four audience members seated on each side. All the rehearsals for the play-within-a-play take place on the ramp.
Tess Schofield’s drab convict costumes capture the bedraggled look of prisoners on their long journey from northern Europe across the equator and beyond, and are brightened only by the striking admiral’s jacket worn by Macheath (Juan Jackson).
Near the play’s end, the story suddenly gets an infusion of reality when the captain (Nicholas Goode) makes an eleventh-hour decision in regard to a convict who attempts to escape. While the scene rings true, it sits uncomfortably with the rest of the drama.
Style and structural devices of “The Convict’s Opera” mirror the original “Beggar’s Opera” so much that they’re sometimes difficult to distinguish. “Beggar’s” used a range of contempo tunes of the day, and Jeffreys has had fun interspersing opera and 18th and 19th century ballads with half-relevant pop classics such as “I Wanna Be Straight,” “I Fought the Law and the Law Won” and “I Am Sailing.” The tunes are momentarily funny, but the device quickly wears thin.Of the cast, Brian Protheroe and Catherine Russell are standouts as Mr. and Mrs. Peachum; their history of working together is evident in their perfs. Songs are performed impressively by a chorus of cast members, both a cappella and with minimal accompaniment from fiddle, percussion and accordion, with Jackson the most memorable singer.
This first collaboration between co-producers the Sydney Theater Company and Out-of-Joint has a cast and crew of Aussies and Brits drawn from the two companies. After its Sydney Theater world premiere, “The Convict’s Opera” will head to Blighty for a tour starting in January.