A landmark of 20th-century musical theatre, The Threepenny Opera, is back in town in a bold new production at the National Theatre's Olivier auditorium, in which Simon Stephen's vivid and darkly comic new translation of Bertolt Brecht's book and lyrics meets Kurt Weill's extraordinary score.
The plot, which has been transposed from Weimar Germany to the grime-infested East End of London, centres on Macheath, the swashbuckling anti-hero with a girl in every bed and a loyal band of followers. It is unfortunate for Macheath that his sexual tastes are not only eclectic but dangerous, leading to his simultaneous passion for three women whose lives are intertwined with those of his enemies. Rather surprisingly he weds one of them – Polly Peachum, the innocent, bespectacled daughter of vile "entrepreneur" Jeremiah, who runs a team of beggars in the most cynical fashion and whose licentious wife, Celia, is an alcoholic slut with a taste for young men. Macheath manages to enjoy a brief glimpse of happy marriage until the moment when the police chief's raunchy daughter, Lucy, complicates matters by reminding him of his commitments.
The musical first appeared in 1928 in Berlin and was inspired by John Gay's 1728 folk opera The Beggar's Opera. The show loses some of its satirical bite in this new version – Simon Stephen's translation is sardonic and vulgar – but director Rufus Norris strips away some of the excess in Brecht's "epic theatre" sending up bourgeois decadence to reveal its hollow, desolate heart. Indeed, for much of the time, the stage is populated by 1920s grotesques in braces and bowler hats with white faces and smeared black eye makeup, reminding us of the show's origins. Vicki Mortimer's Brechtian design is both inventive and economic: characters crash through papered flats, steps and costume rails are openly wheeled around and lights and sandbags swing through the auditorium, giving a dizzy sense of peril. There is also a frequent self-parodic use of signage on stage – Jenny Driver tempted by a tin labelled "drugs" and a newspaper headline "Mack does bad things" and a delight in cynical delivery.
But it is during the musical interludes that the show really soars – Weill's memorably dark musical score, a blend of cabaret and jazz which includes such classics as Mack the Knife and Seeräuberjenny pulsating with brass strings and harmonium sounds, is rendered here with stunning elan by the onstage band under the direction of David Shrubsole.
Furthermore, director Rufus Norris, who is also the National's artistic director, extracts a magnetic central performance from Rory Kinnear in his first stage singing role as the underworld kingpin Macheath, with an appropriate shark-like sinister grin and exuding a combination of menace, arrogance and charisma. Strong support comes from Nicholas Holder as the unscrupulous, grossly fat cross-dresser Jeremiah Peachum, Haydn Glynne as his leering, crafty wife Celia and Rosalie Craig as their sharp-witted daughter Polly.
I was also impressed with Sharon Small as the opium-addicted Jenny, the show's ruined soul.
This, then, is a musical which still holds an enduring fascination and timeless appeal.
Runs at National Theatre Olivier Auditorium until Saturday 1 October 2016
Box office: 020 7452 3000