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The Pirates of Penzance

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 15 September


This autumn’s tour by the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company ends at Norwich’s Theatre Royal. Vivian Coates’ new production of The Pirates of Penzance marries the traditional G&S style of staging with something new. His set designer is Paul Lazell who provides scenery pieces to the left and right of the stage with an illustrated open book as the centrepiece. Janet Morris’ costumes give us crinolines for the girls and vaguely 18th century for the pirate crew.

Sullivan’s score flows briskly throughout; this is an operetta with considerably more music than spoken dialogue. The orchestra under Andrew Nicklin sounded a trifle scratchy in the overture but settled down once the curtain had risen and the audience tendency to sing along had subsided (well, this is a quasi-traditional production after all).

Star of the show was undoubtably Emma Walsh’s Mabel, playing the minx with a sense of her own value and tossing off the coloratura passages with an interpolated tribute to bel canto cabalette which earned knowing chuckles for its subtlety. Her Frederic was Anthony Flaum, not the most subtle of tenors though a convincing actor.

Richard Gauntlett is an audience favourite and is moreover playing on his home turf. The “Model of a very modern major-general” patter song came over well as did this peacetime soldier’s ability to turn most situations to his own advantage. Balancing him was Toby Stafford-Allen’s flamboyant Pirate King, very well sung as well as suggesting why this particular band of sea robbers  is so very unsuccessful.

Both the flock of daughters and the pirate crew provided well-detailed character sketches and the white-faced policemen, led by Simon Wilding’s Sergeant, as always all-but brought the house down. Mae Haydorn’s Ruth is refreshingly less of a harridan than as sometimes portrayed and sung with great musicality.

Three and a half-star rating.

The season consludes with matinée and evening performances of HMS Pinafore on 16 September.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Reviews 2017

The Pirates of Penzance

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 9 June)

Sasha Regan’s all-male staging of the much-loved Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance is closer in spirit and appearance to a Matthew Bourne production, such as his mainly male Swan Lake, than to a pure drag show.

Designer Robyn Wilson-Owen has created a nice blend of late 19th century white gowns when the hard-working ensemble portray Major-General Stanley’s bevy of wards with little attempt to disguise the arm muscles, hair-styles or facial features of the singer-actor-dancers. As pirates, they also wear white with a flamboyant waistcoat to differentiate Neil Moors’ Pirate King and a modest jerkin for Samuel Nunn’s Frederic.

Miles Western’s Major-General is natty in scarlet coat, white breeches and gleaming black boots; he also manages the tongue-twisting two patter songs very well. If Alex Weatherhill’s Ruth carries off the acting honours, it is Alan Richardson’s Mabel, with a seemingly effortless ability to sing coloratura embellishments who wins the vocal stakes.

Mabel is flanked by a finely differentiated quartet of “sisters” – Chris Theo Cook, Dale Page, Ben Irish and Richard Russell Edwards; their corresponding pirate persona are equally well played. Lizzi Gee’s choreography is inventive while not above taking a couple of side-swipes at G & S conventions.

Pirate King Moos is a genial sort of cove, a trifle light-voiced perhaps for the role. The platoon of police, with their blue shirts and lorgnette moustaches, are led by James Waud; both “When the foeman bares his steel” and “when a felon’s not engaged” make their proper impact and proved near-showstoppers.

Most of Gilbert’s (to 21st century ears) excruciating puns are left intact. The score is a piano reduction with musical director David Griffiths at audience level in the orchestra pit; the a cappella “Hail, poetry” is particularly fine. Some of the shifts between registers, particularly falsetto and natural voice, lie a trifle awkwardly; Nunn and Weatherhill wandered off-key in their “Oh! false one” exchange.

If you’re an old-school G & S purist, wedded to the old D’Oyly Carte Company style, you may not enjoy this type of production. But if you take an open mind to it, there’s much to savour. And – these days – what a treat to hear people humming the tunes as they leave the theatre.

The Pirates of Penzance plays at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 13 June and at the Hackney Empire between 24 and 28 June.

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Filed under Opera, Reviews 2015