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Polly: The Heartbreak Opera | Pleasance Theatre

Polly: The Heartbreak Opera, a new collaboration from Sharp Teeth Theatre and Marie Hamilton is not your typical musical comedy. A radical retelling of John Gay’s scandalous and heavily censored 1728 opera, Polly, using the original source material more as a springboard than a Bible.

Using meta-theatrical devices such as direct audience address and Brechtian placards to orientate the audience, Polly: The Heartbreak Opera follows the adventures of Polly Peachum who, after discovering that she is one of many jilted wives, goes on an ill-fated journey to find her missing bigamous husband Macheath. Along the way, Polly – the innocent daughter of criminals – meets zany characters such as drag kings (a direct reference to the gender swapping plot device used in both the original and this radical retelling), hip hop pirates, a conniving hula-skirted god mother, and – of course – her husband’s secret other wives.

The original Polly was written as a sequel to the more successful The Beggar’s Opera, which famously used popular songs the audience was familiar with, as opposed to the grandiose arias found in other operas of the period. This not only made the often-convoluted plot much more accessible to an average audience, but also helped to satirise the elitism of 18th century opera. This modern retelling of Polly, with its power ballads, rapid-fire humour, and grit does exactly that, following in the footsteps of its predecessor.

Drawing on the anti-colonialist and early feminist themes of Gay’s banned work, Polly: The Heartbreak Opera is a war cry for wrong women and a return to burlesque in its originally intended form. It takes the basic events of its source material and marries it to unmistakably modern language. Polly: The Heartbreak Opera is self-aware, riveting from the first moment, and unafraid of the bizarre. Though it combines elements of camp and pantomime, it never

loses sight of its central aims and themes: feminine rage and the (dis)belief of survivors.

The use of prerecorded tracks was to the detriment of the piece. Though it served as a topical reminder that the arts are grossly underfunded, the prerecorded tracks sometimes overpowered the talented voices of the performers and what I can only assume were important and witty lyrics. This at times left the audience unsure what level of participation was expected of them. However, a strength of the piece lies in the comedy of the script and the chameleonic acting of the performers. Other stand-out elements of the piece was the lighting design by Ellie Bookham and Alice Boal, which created the atmosphere of a vaudevillian rock concert and the catchy -- often boisterous, always visceral – score by Ben Osborn, Madeline Shann and Ellie Showering.

This revolutionary musical is more Riot grrrl than Kurt Weill, providing an exuberantly joyous evening that seemed to fly by. However, I would advise audiences to familiarize themselves with the source material prior to attending. Though a lot of care has gone into making an old story modern and accessible to today’s audience, Polly: The Heartbreak Opera cannot escape the comically complicated plot of the original story (though it certainly comments on it!).

Let Polly: The Heartbreak Opera serve as a celebratory warning: the world is meant to change for the better, and women will fight like hell to get it there! Polly: The Heartbreak Opera is running at the Pleasance Theatre from 8th May until 11th May - for more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.


Gifted tickets in return for an honest review | photography by Chelsey Cliff


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