There must be a great temptation among writes to burn all their papers in order to stop some enterprising producer slotting back in all the material you thought best exorcised. Such is the case with The Carl Rosa Opera Company’s new production of The Pirates of Penzance at London’s Gielgud Theatre.
Pirates has been performed in any number of styles from the traditional to Joseph Papp’s rock music version. Here, director Peter Mulloy decided to go back to the 1879 script and Gilbert’s notes, and, as a result, faithful fans of Gilbert and Sullivan (G&S) may not wholly recognise the version presented. In come Hail poetry, A hymn of allegiance to the monarch, and an extended To Queen Victoria’s name we bow (it now includes The Hymn to the Nobility).
A reprise of the Major-General’s song (with a new verse written by Simon Butteriss), which closed the finale in the show’s New York premiere, has also been included. Solo lines have been re-allocated among the minor principals in accordance with Gilbert’s distribution, although it’s not certain if the play was ever performed that way. It’s an interesting approach, but the show doesn’t really need these additions, and, indeed, some of the slow up the action considerably.
Sadly, the popular usual encores of Modern Major-General and With cat-like tread have been omitted.
Also in this spirit, the setting and design of the production are firmly High Victorian, based on the 1879 original designs and is charming.
As for the performances, it was much better sung than the other two productions in the series, particularly by David Curry as Frederic (catch him at Sadler’s Wells as Tony in West Side Story this summer), Deborah Myers as Mabel, Beverley Klein as a sassy Ruth and Barry Clark as a very clear Major-General. The ensemble also sparkled.
Special mention must go to Steven Page, whose Pirate King was gloriously sung and showed his usual effortless command of the material. It’s worth the price of the ticket to see him alone.
And the stunt casting? Jo Brand did her best with the Sergeant of Police, displaying a surprisingly not unpleasant voice, but was most effective when given some business or other to do (she was clearly uncomfortable when left to her own devices). Otherwise, she brought a jarring modern presence to a resolutely period piece. A female sergeant wasn’t too unhappy a change—she comes on with a rolling pin instead of a truncheon and knits during A policeman’s lot—but a few eyebrows were raised by her appearance at the end as a hopeful bride (she doesn’t manage to snare any of the pirates and throws down her bouquet in frustration).
All in all, it’s been a bit of curate’s egg of a season, with some wobbly bits making for small black clouds on otherwise sunny productions. Hopefully, they will have brought Steven Page’s talents to a wider audience (I’m now a firm fan) and will lead to further offerings, but perhaps next time they’ll resist the urge to cast celebrities for the sake of it (although Nichola McAuliffe is welcome back at any time).
To March 1. Box office: 0844 482 5130
* Other G&S reviews by Jane Watkins