Kneehigh have an ‘aesthetic’. There’s a vintage shop just out of Exeter town centre called The Real McCoy that, when I used to visit it as a teenager, had almost exactly the same aesthetic – creepily similar, in retrospect. A cross-polination of rock ‘n’ roll 50s paraphernalia (circle skirts and pale blue suits) with decaying Victoriana (mahogany draws of lace gloves and half-bent parasols). Kneehigh are now the key exponents of this same West Country-Steampunk-in-an-American-Diner vibe.
The only trouble with having such a definitive and perennial aesthetic is that you also rely on the audience liking it and buying into it as a concept. As it happens, I personally love the Kneehigh-ness of Kneehigh and would therefore probably enjoy pretty much anything performed by them. And I am not alone in feeling this, given the audience numbers and standing ovations that invariably follow them; however I can also appreciate that the opposite could be true, and that if high class gothic rockabilly parody is not your thing, then whatever the specific show being performed is, it will still leave you unconvinced. What I mean is, if you just don’t ‘get’ the company, don’t go see the shows. And if you do, go see everything of them that you can, get a tent and go sleep in the Lost Gardens of Heligan for a few years. Watching and enjoying Kneehigh is a pretty unique thing within the larger theatre world. Disappearing into a punk fairyland of familiar faces playing different roles and getting kicked around by the insane energy and turbulence of super-short scenes and random blasts of music.
On this particular occasion, Kneehigh has teamed up with Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse (who were recently at the BOV with Juno and the Paycock) to produce an updated version of The Beggar’s Opera. The Beggar’s Opera was first performed in 1728 and it’s one of those things that’s all about gritty reality. I often dislike gritty reality, preferring pathetic escapism instead. But Kneehigh have taken the story, updated it in time and made it nicely angry. Gritty reality is problematic when its actually just wimpy wallowing in the shiteness of everything, especially when done with an air of “I bet it’s never occurred to the audience how rubbish things really are; better take it as my duty to shock them out of complacency”.
Dead Dog in a Suitcase has none of this patronising attitude, either towards the audience or the subject matter. Director Mike Shepherd took as an initial thought the Brecht quote “the world is poor and man is a shit”. Which might not appear to be the most uplifting of sentiments. But it’s only really depressing if you took the piece of paper and sat all day in bed with it, doing nothing. Kneehigh come from the school of revolution out of anger. They take the depressing ‘gritty reality’ thought and then slam its head against a marble slab. If there is a Nick Cave theme to this production then it must be “Kicking Against the Pricks”.
As with Tristan and Yseult, Carly Bawden and Patrycja Kujawska as Polly Peachum and the Widow Goodman, respectively, are exemplars of talented coolness and, again, motivated by endless anger and sorrow. The opposite of the type-cast women Shepherd disliked in the original Beggar’s Opera: “women who were either wives, daughters or prostitutes”. However, although the main cast were all superb, the show was actually won by a series of puppets, specifically Punch and Judy, and Toby the Dog.
Poor old Toby spends most of the play as the eponymous Dead Dog in a Suitcase (based on the story of a young lady whose own DDiaSC was mugged off her on the subway). But when we do see him at the beginning of the play he’s adorable and it’s really the pointless nastiness of his murder –his death is more important than that of the mayor he get’s killed with– that the plot evolves around.
Punch, meanwhile, is the thing they best do a modern take on. Controlled by puppeteer Sarah Wright, the character is both the shrieky exponent of mindless violence and the play’s perverse voice of reason. His best moment appears when he’s spotted riding a ram around a debauched party in a scene that should have appeared in Hunter S. Thompson’s The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. I used to hate Mr. Punch. Now I want to go party with him.
To my mind, the musical was bought down a notch by the occasionally weak lyrics. A production that had more musical scenes than not needed the writing of the lines to be stronger, sharper and funnier. Especially in contrast to the funniness of the puppets, the songs could have maintained being low-art whilst [inserts bloody awful closing comment] still ‘packing more of a Punch’.