King of Thieves is a new play, commissioned by the Stratford Festival, written by the same author, George F. Walker, who also wrote Zastrozzi, which I saw last year. Zastrozzi was a strange little story about revenge and what is left of oneself after acting on that revenge. I liked it.
So I was rather looking forward to seeing Walker’s latest baby – even more so as Nigel Bennett has a part in it as an FBI agent. (Nigel Bennett of course I had seen a few years back in Retreat from Moscow in his native Halifax and he was absolutely brilliant as the man who finally after almost a lifetime faces the consequences of his dead marriage and acts upon them.)
The story itself is loosely derived from the Threepenny Opera, with Peachum and his wife still fencing goods but keeping up the front of being legal now, and Mac being a rather successful thief, married to Peachum’s daughter Polly. Very up-to-date “The Bankers” are the bad guys, thriving in wealth while the rest of the world drowns in poverty. The premise is very promising, the setting (in a not so quiet little speak-easy most of the time) also appealing, transferring the audience immediately into the 1920ies thanks to a really brilliant jazz band playing along live in the back of the stage.
Vinnie, the owner of the speak-easy (Sean Cullen) is helping the story along, connecting the scenes of theft and jealousy and police investigating and murder and betrayal and the songs fitted into the storyline. And that is also the one great weakness of the play. The songs (great music, by the way, written by John Roby) never really fit it, even worse, they take away from the tension the play needs to capture the audience. Add to that Sean Cullen who does not live up to his usual brilliance and Evan Bullung as Mac who seriously lacks charm and charisma and it is understandable why the show drags along a bit lifelessly. Which is sad because the rest of the cast, first and foremost Myrna (Nora McLellan), hilarious and raunchy as Peachum’s wife, and Peachum himself (Jay Brazeau) are trying their best to drive the story along. Bennett’s FBI supervisor is rightfully stern and trying his utmost to get “The Bankers” convicted against all odds.
And yet, even after numerous violent deaths and quite a few gunshots and slashings, the show is finally over and one is glad to make it home before ten for a change. The play has potential, but it fails to make good on it. Up until now it has been the weakest of the shows I’ve seen in Stratford.