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Polly (The Heartbreak Opera) is currently on tour until 27 May, and arrives in London at The Pleasance Theatre for a run from 8 – 11 May 2024. The show is a fierce adaptation of John Gay’s Polly, the near forgotten gender-bending, anti-colonialist and proto-feminist ballad opera, originally written in 1729 but banned for the outrage it sparked. Bringing a gritty, vibrant energy to the scandalous sequel of The Beggar’s opera, this new musical features 18 original songs inspired by the likes of Britney Spears and Peaches. Think ‘Gimme More’. Think ‘F*** the Pain Away’. But make it Opera. Stephanie Kempson is the Artistic Director of Sharp Teeth and Stephanie was kind enough to take time out and write about the show, a love of drag kings and what we, the audience, can expect on the night.

– by Stephanie Kempson, Artistic Director of Sharp Teeth –

Drag kings are amazing. As a theatre director I love bringing them into my work. As an audience member I have loved seeing drag which actively pushes at gender politics or queer politics, like Christeene or Richard Energy or Rachael Clerke’s Great White Males or Manly Mannington. It’s all political no matter what, but the ones which push just a little harder on uncomfortable truths are the ones I have been most inspired by. I have explored drag performance myself, drawing on my deeper-than-Alto singing voice to play Dick Cave, a cursed version of Nick Cave. But as a disabled performer (especially as one who is immunocompromised in an ongoing pandemic) I don’t get out as much as I’d like. Instead, drag has thoroughly invaded my work as a theatre director; in my own theatre company’s work, my collaborations with artists like Serena Flynn, and in my work with young people where I have run workshops around dragging up history. 

Polly The Heartbreak Opera
©ChelseyCliff (image supplied)

In Polly (The Heartbreak Opera), a new musical presented by my company and Marie Hamilton, we have gorged ourselves on drag kings. Marie Hamilton (co-producer, co-writer and performer in the production) brought John Gay’s banned sequel to the Beggar’s Opera to my company, and together we decided to update it for the modern day. The original text from 1729 was bawdy and silly, and we wanted to use it to comment on the obsession with remounting old stories (like Shakespeare) in theatre along with lots of the other themes in the play. We wanted to combine bouffon, a type of clowning which provocatively and satirical explores outsiderness and speaks truth to power, and intersectional feminism to explore the downsides of the patriarchy, heterosexual romance narratives and colonialism. And with four female and non-binary actors playing all the roles and singing all the songs, we had to have them play the men in the story, so drag was inevitable. 

Through our drag kings we look at the idea of the bad boy romantic lead. Macheath, who, despite his bigamy, criminality and cruelty, is often portrayed as an ideal romantic hero. Marie has the joy of playing the ambitious, violent and ridiculous Captain Macheath. We also feature a Boris Johnson-esque politician Mr Ducat, who ends up buying Polly from a sex trafficker, and a troop of young male pirates who call themselves Blazin’ Squid. 

Our drag king characters allow us to humorously explore themes around the rich establishment, national identity and toxic masculinity, while inevitably drifting from hilarity to something more serious. Often through song. Blazin’ Squid has their own Red Hot Chilli Peppers inspired song about losing mates to bossy wives, while Mr Ducat sings a song called “Aren’t women’s voices annoying” about his long suffering wife, and Macheath has Ricky Martin inspired song called “I’m a Man” in which he sings about his masculinity. We want our audience to come for the giggles, and stay for the moving story, and leave wanting to acknowledge our society’s history around gender and colonialism.

Tickets to Polly (The Heartbreak Opera) at Pleasance Theatre: https://www.pleasance.co.uk/event/polly-heartbreak-opera

Polly (The Heartbreak Opera) is on tour until 27 May (link here) and in London at Pleasance Theatre, 8 – 11 May, Carpenters Mews, North Road, London N7 9EF, United Kingdom.

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