A few disabilities come in handy when you are running a begging business.
And for those without the natural advantages that missing limbs can add to the takings, there’s the option of disposable stumps in a range of handy sizes.
Thus we are at the shop of J.J. Peachum, who trains his band of beggars to play upon the pity of passers-by. So it was a brilliant idea to cast disabled actors, and to provide sign language and large surtitles for the audience.
Peachum’s philosophy is “life’s a bitch, and then you die,” but there’s a darkly funny undertone to events: a false arm falls off, and Garry Robson, who revels in the role, sings “Cut your own legs off before someone steals them from under you.”
The line is typical of the tremendously witty translation by Jeremy Sams, who has updated the action to contemporary London, with the coronation of Victoria converted into that of Charles III.
Jimmy Savile, clerics and politicians are worked into the songs, while the reworked Mack the Knife throws a series of low punches with references to murdered Asians, rape and prostitution.
It’s strong stuff to compare Mack and his wives to Posh and Becks, William and Kate, and don’t expect the Army song – to “help the foreigner to meet the coroner” – to feature in recruitment literature any time soon.
Cici Howells blows up a storm as Polly singing Pirate Jenny, kept here in the first act as in the original, rather than transferred to the character Jenny in the second.
In a multi-talented cast I loved John Kelly as the wheelchair-bound narrator, Ben Goffe, “sometime dwarf” as he describes himself but with a laugh as big as a bear, doubling as a trumpeter in the stage band and in the role of beggar Jake, and Natasha Lewis and Amelia Cavallo as Macheath’s other mistresses.
Milton Lopes looked great as the kid-gloved Mack, and neatly swishes an ivory-handled cane, but at this performance lacked the force of character to compensate for a less than impressive voice.
Directors Peter Rowe and Jenny Sealey have imagined the theatre taken over by protestors to stage the play, with statistics about poverty cleverly posted around the foyer, and placards hung on walls. I particularly liked “Keep your filthy tax out of my bedroom.”
Fearless and irreverent, the show will appeal immediately to those of socialist sympathies, For others, its wit well justifies the trip to Birmingham.
The Threepenny Opera continues to Saturday 12 April. Tickets from birmingham-rep.co.uk or 0121 236 4455.