MUSIC / Heaven is a place on earth: Jan Smaczny on D'Oyly Carte at the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

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It's funny how musical depictions of Heaven make it seem such a dull place in which to spend eternity, particularly by contrast with evocations of Hell. Almost by accident, D'Oyly Carte has bucked the trend. Their new Orpheus in the Underworld, a co-production with Opera North, has the scenes in Heaven rattling along at the rate of several laughs per minute. Hell, on the other hand, despite the can-can, is more than a touch stiff. In the final judgement this does not matter greatly. Martin Duncan's production rarely moves without a titter and the company responds with a will.

D'Oyly Carte's bid to stay fresh by exploring the repertoire beyond the steady tread of G & S is welcome. The doldrums in which many productions of Gilbert & Sullivan float can often be attributed to the view that that the magnificent two created their own context, rather than growing out of a flourishing tradition of which Offenbach is the major luminary. This said, and notwithstanding Jeremy Sams's criminally funny translation, I could have done with the kind of bite that makes Gilbert seem so contemporary. But there was plenty of comedy, and it made for a production which will make many friends on tour.

The comic cause would have been served to finer effect had Mary Hegarty's Eurydice deployed some clearer diction, but she charmed the ear in Offenbach's graceful melodic lines well enough with her attractive, flexible soprano. The gods themselves shone with uniform splendour: Alan Watt was a complete twit as Jupiter and Barry Patterson a suitably egregious, if not completely resonant, Pluto. Frances McCafferty's Morningside Juno was also a delight, but the palm must go to Jill Pert's indomitable Public Opinion, a true blast from the Thatcherite past and clear evidence that this singer should have her own television programme. The conducting of John Owen Edwards was wickedly intelligent, the orchestral playing excellent.

If Orpheus is a new departure for the company, their Pirates of Penzance sees them steaming into a home port. Its ultra-normality married to sheer polish made it compulsive entertainment: professionalism on every front swept away the memory of years of well-meaning, if debilitating, amateurism. Most of the routines in Stuart Maunder's production are obvious enough and Roger Kirk's attractive sets hardly break new ground, but there is a confidence in the presentation that somehow transcends the need for originality.

Once again, John Owen Edwards and his orchestra were on splendid form supporting a cast which was nearly always ideal. David Fieldsend, who had already made a suitably desultory Orpheus, was a winning Frederic and Alan Watt a cripplingly funny Major-General. Still more compelling than in her role in Orpheus, Jill Pert's Ruth seemed to pull out more stops than might seem decent. Best of all was the chorus, aided by Lindsay Dolan's expectation-defeating choreography, which threw itself into the proceedings with heart-warming verve. Conventional images are not upset in this production - these are not times, after all, for overly analytical G & S. But in presenting as slick a performance as this, D'Oyly Carte allows Gilbert's ability to make a native audience laugh at itself produce its own strange catharsis.

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