When John Gay penned The Beggar's Opera in 1728, he intended it as an 'anti-opera'. Instead of grand themes and classical music, it depicted criminality and the gritty London underworld and used common street music. You can't tell from the title but Dead Dog In A Suitcase is a retelling of The Beggar's Opera by the experimental and extremely popular theatre company Kneehigh. With singing, dancing, explosions, puppets and a range of weird and wonderful musical instruments, they clearly got the memo about the anti-opera.
Briefly speaking, The Beggar's Opera is about a shady man, Mr Peachum (and his wife) who makes his living by turning criminals into the law, despite also using their services. His daughter Polly secretly marries the famous highwayman, Macheath, so the Peachums launch an attempt to have him arrested and hanged so that they can get their hands on his money. They’re in league with a corrupt jailor Lockit, who's daughter Lucy was jilted by Macheath. Are you with me?
Dead Dog tells much the same story but it's brought to the 21st century and has a clear message about corruption and social injustice. Oh and in the spirit of John Gay's common opera, each of the characters is given a specific genre of music.
So Macheath becomes a Modish contract killer with stylish quiff, long jacket, brandishing a handgun and rocking the mic. Mr Peachum is a Seventies suit-wearing, banana daiquiri-sloshing, corrupt businessman, who hires Macheath to murder the current mayor at the beginning of the play so that he won't expose his illicit practices and so that he can run for mayor himself – an election that's rigged by his leopard print wearing, disco dancing wife. Lockit becomes a slimy police chief, open to bribes by the Peachums and ready to rip off his shirt and rock out to heavy metal in an instance. Finally, the girls – the difference between Lockit’s criminal daughter Lucy, dressed in black with Gothic make-up and piercings and carrying Macheath’s child, and Polly, dressed head-to-toe in white and appalled by her parents’ dishonest ways, is clear for all to see.
Riddled with political messages from the corrupt police officer to the revolutionary slogans plastered across the set and a finale song which sings loud and proud, 'We've all got a noose around our necks', Dead Dog is a breathtaking adaptation and also an exemplary piece of theatre for the modern age. But it was also so damned entertaining. Particular mention must go to Sarah Wright, who brought to life Punch, Judy and the other puppets used to reinforce the show’s principal themes, the cross-dressing, bone-breaking clown Jack Shalloo, and the incredible musicians who picked up guitars, brass instruments, strings and even at one point, played a panel saw with a violin bow.
I am fortunate enough to get to visit the theatre on a regular basis, but Dead Dog In A Suitcase blew me away. Can I go again?
Dead Dog In A Suitcase (And Other Love Songs) is on at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds until Saturday 7 November. For more information and to book tickets visit www.wyp.org.uk