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THE BEGGAR’S OPERA, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 11th October 1952

We have often wondered why there is each year a Cambridge Summer Festival. Who goes to it? Most of the senior members of the University go away for the Long Vacation, the undergraduates cannot afford to come up, and in fact the city would at this time be considerably emptier than at any other time of year were it not for the hordes of foreigners who invade it. Even then, it cannot he said to be a metropolis crowded with potential Festival-goers. I was amused to see that a London paper recently told of the visit to our Arts Theatre of a repertory company from Guildford for what was optimistically called “the height of the Summer season”—that was, for the month of September. By then, of course, even the foreigners have gone away.

The foreigners seem to be the key to our Festival. We want their money. Very well then, let us make them truly enjoy our programmes. British folksongs, for instance, or old airs of that ilk, do not necessarily interest people of an alien background. I do not say sugar the pill, but at least make the pill smaller and more easily swallowed.

Bearing all this in mind, it was a pity to put on The Beggar’s Opera in Professor Dent’s version and in its entirety. Authenticity is a poor substitute for entertainment. It made a long evening seem even longer, on account of the endless succession of snippets. One hearing of every tune and then we rushed on to the next. No time to get acquainted with a happy phrase, no recapitulations, no high-spots—in fact one felt like a traveller passing picturesque country stations in an express train.

Of the production, one would say, “Charming, charming, charming.” Not one breath of sordidity or squalor. If there is honour amongst thieves, we also saw refinement amongst whores. The costumes (Marianne Hill) were extremely fresh and pretty. One was surprised to find everyone so well got up, even in prison. The sets too (Quentin Lawrence) gave the same pleasing fully-fed atmosphere of spaciousness and gentility. I did not see a sign of the pox anywhere during the whole evening.

Of the singers, one would say David King was miscast as Macheath. This he evidently knew and it undermined his confidence (and ours) to a grave extent. Antony Severn as Filch was extraordinarily enigmatic. Perhaps the performance of the evening was given by Barbara Carter as Mrs. Diana Trapes. She brought a breeze of welcome unfresh air to what was otherwise a desert of respectability. I was particularly charmed to observe her canny handling of decanters in a bargaining scene with Mr Peachum (Robert Rowell) and Mr Lockit (William Armitstead). There were two decanters full of coloured liquid. One liquid was obviously precious, for on the entrance of Mrs Trapes, Robert Rowell deliberately pushed away this decanter (from which he and Lockit had filled their own glasses) and helped the lady to the evidently less interesting fluid from a fresh decanter. However, the lady very soon got her claws on to the right decanter, while the gentlemen were busy warbling their first verse, and poured herself a liberal helping in a new glass.

Apart from this little incident, the whole show lacked élan. The trollops’ drinking party was by no means brazen, though there was some nice dancing (arranged by Iris Armstrong)—and the highwaymen’s night out in the inn was desultory and unconvincing.

The music was played, as was to be expected, with great competence, except for a gong somewhere in the last scene—supposed to simulate a bell. This was played with so charmingly erratic an attack, that one felt the supposed belfry could not make up its mind whether it was very near or far away in the distance, and its vacillations were sudden and surprising.

The lines of the play are of course the most amusing part, and I fear without them much of the evening’s entertainment would have been lost, as no doubt it was for those foreigners who came to sample our mysterious Cambridge theatrical taste.

Peter Tranchell