From its very beginning, Polly displays the juxtapositions and contradictions which make it so exciting. A shimmering strip curtain, a group of veiled figures and a set of multi-coloured microphones seem equally suggestive of a drunken hen-do and a Black Lodge-esque hinterland. When the three brides – three Mrs MacHeaths – rip off their veils, what follows is much more of the former than the latter, but it keeps just enough oddness and discomfort to enforce the fact that, while we may be laughing at the characters, the situations they are in really aren’t all that funny.
Polly is an adaptation of John Gay’s sequel to The Beggar’s Opera (later adapted itself into Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera), directed by Stephanie Kempson and devised by the cast. Following the form of its predecessor, Polly has far more lines sung than spoken. While early in the show I had my doubts, the mix works perfectly, managing to keep the story moving at a sprightly pace but also offering plenty of catchy tunes and comic moments. This is partly down to the music itself – Ben Osborn has created a fantastic collection of songs, each in a style suiting its subject, while still keeping a thread running through the whole show.
The other element that makes the mix work is the three incredible performers – Marie Hamilton, Madeline Shann and Kate Sobey (in a return to the Wardrobe after her triumphant turns as Rocky and Mr Orange). While all are fantastic singers (particularly noticeable in the opening and closing a capella numbers), their complete transformations for each character means that the focus is always kept on the grotesque inhabitants of the play’s world.
When creating dark comedy, it can be almost impossible to balance the darkness with the comedy to suit all tastes. For me Polly’s mix worked perfectly – rather than just getting the audience to laugh at awful things, they managed to create moments of real horror and threat amid the hilarity. They also managed to create moments of hope in among the pessimism of the show, whether that be a rare moment of solidarity shown between the characters or the angry, defiant curtain song.
The ending is an odd one. Even a couple of days later, I can’t tell if I think it is awkwardly truncated or the most perfect conclusion the show could have. It feels like it could be a cop-out – leaving all the characters in difficult positions but using a song to revolt to provide a final image of women triumphant (or at least on the way there). At the same time, it seems radical to leave the characters at their moments of crisis, no better or worse off than they have been at any other point of the play. Whether their lives are once again ruined by the men around them, or they rebel and triumph, or fail, is up to us.
Like many modern productions of The Threepenny Opera, the show more has the feeling of being political than espousing any explicit political message. It shows us the tragedies and horrors of the world but only gives vague suggestions as to their causes (greed, patriarchy and colonialism are always there somewhere). However, it feels like it doesn’t necessarily need this specificity. Not only does it provide enough thought-provoking barbs to the audience in the middle of some overwhelming fun, but it also seems much more relevant than so many recent productions of The Threepenny Opera, which have sold themselves on their timeliness. This performance was the piece’s second work-in-progress production. With the show already so full of pleasures, it’ll be very exciting to see what the finished version looks like.
Polly was at the Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol, until April 17th. For more details, click here.