THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 24th June, 2014
The Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company is in residence at the Grand this week, kicking off their three-production stay with Pirates. Having recently seen a marvellous all-male HMS Pinafore, I wondered how a production that plays it ‘straight’ so to speak, would keep me engaged – I have seen G&S shows in the past in which you can’t see the good for the twee.
Fear not: we are in safe hands. Director John Savournin pitches the tone exactly right. The thing is, with G&S, you’re not supposed to take it seriously, but that doesn’t mean performance standards may drop. Savournin lets the humour of the material shine through and he and choreographer Damian Czarnecki give his excellent company plenty of comic business to enhance the scenes. Only a little of it seems a bit laboured but the show moves along with such brio, you quickly find yourself laughing out loud (genuinely!) at something else.
The director himself appears as the dashing Pirate King, setting the tone for the high levels of camp that will follow. Towering over his pirate crew – camp as Christmas to a man – Savournin’s stature reminds me of John Cleese, which in turn reminds me how much the Pythons owe to G&S for their own comic songs. Anyway, the plot concerns pirate apprentice Frederic (Nick Allen) who finds himself free to leave having come of age, to pursue a career of pursuing pirates. Once ashore he meets Mabel (Elinor Moran) – with her entrance, all vocal fireworks and coloratura in a spoof of showy sopranos, the show reaches dazzling new heights of silliness and quality. Richard Gauntlett is the very model of a modern Major-General Stanley, easily the campest in the land.
There is strong support in the form of some great character acting and singing from Sylvia Clarke as Ruth and Bruce Graham as a lugubrious and timid Sergeant of Police. The chorus work, whether it’s the pirates, Mabel’s many sisters, the Keystone Kop style police or even a bunch of squirrel puppets, is detailed and funny.
It may seem like inconsequential fluff but you can revel in the silly, quintessential Britishness of it all. If you’re not an opera buff, G&S are definitely a gateway drug to lead you to the hard stuff. If you are, there is much to enjoy here as the conventions and tropes of opera proper are sent up mercilessly, while the piece retains an integrity and charm of its own. And there is a surprising moment that brings you back to earth: the ladies are flitting around on the beach, with some excellent parasol work, and they sing, “Though the moments quickly die, Greet them gaily as they fly” a bittersweet admonishment to us all to gather those rosebuds while we may. We are all mortal, remember.
I cannot wait for the next two shows later this week.