Pirate kings and pirate clowns

The Pirates Of Penzance | Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London
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The Independent Culture

Parents - Do your children have lazy lips? Teach the little mumblers a lesson with the pleasantest pedagogy imaginable - a trip to the New Shakespeare Company's Pirates of Penzance. The actors in this revival of Joseph Papp's souped-up 1980 production provide an awesomely good example as they attack WS Gilbert's tricky lyrics with crystalline purity. When the audience is invited to take part in the patter-trio (pinched from Ruddigore) you can all see how cleanly and quickly you can get your tongues round "unintelligible".

Parents - Do your children have lazy lips? Teach the little mumblers a lesson with the pleasantest pedagogy imaginable - a trip to the New Shakespeare Company's Pirates of Penzance. The actors in this revival of Joseph Papp's souped-up 1980 production provide an awesomely good example as they attack WS Gilbert's tricky lyrics with crystalline purity. When the audience is invited to take part in the patter-trio (pinched from Ruddigore) you can all see how cleanly and quickly you can get your tongues round "unintelligible".

There are, of course, different weights and colours to the crystal in Ian Talbot's cracking cast. Mark Umbers, as Frederic, the gentle pirate-by-mistake, could feature in Lisa Simpson's favourite magazine, Non-Threatening Males. Courtly and graceful, politely resigned to death before dishonour, he has one well-bred loss of temper, then retreats in shame and sucks his thumb. Gay Soper as Ruth, the nursemaid who bound him to the wrong master, adopts an accent thick with thistles, making her error even plainer when she explains young Fred was meant for a "pie-lot". Soper's Scottish burr also emphasises her portrayal of Ruth as a game, dashing lassie; it's a performance that goes a long way toward countering Gilbert's call for everyone to throw stones and jeer at middle-aged spinsters.

Lucy Quick's gloriously liquid voice justifies her goofy self-absorption as a Mabel who is clearly less enamoured of Frederic than of her own ability to hold her top notes. As the sergeant of police, Stephen Matthews brings to his part not only a boneless high kick and manic leer, but a feeling that he might, like one of those science-fiction clockwork toys, turn into a smiling serial killer. The most enjoyable work, though, comes from Paul Bradley, whose modern major-general, in feathered hat and high-buttoned gaiters, looks like an imposing but kindly penguin.

Bradley's gravitas provides a welcome ballast to a show whose gaiety can at times fly off into silliness. Jimmy Johnston's pirate king is at times more of a pirate clown, fey and too easily flustered by misbehaving props in a routine than loses its impact on the small, crowded stage. The four maidens are shrill and flap about with exaggerated gawkiness, climbing over rocky mountains as if they have lead in their boots.

Though Gilbert and Sullivan have benefited lately from some long-overdue pizzazz, their sweetness is sometimes trampled in all the rush and bustle. No matter how dizzy Frederic and Mabel are, their love songs should stir us with their passionate, impulsive melodies, partnered, for a change, with lyrics of burning simplicity. In the original production, Linda Ronstadt managed this with the interpolated "Sorry Her Lot" but Quick, at what should be a genuinely touching moment, still seems to be serenading her own vocal ability. The fault lies less with her than with Talbot's relentless jollity, which left me feeling, had a great time, thanks, but didn't fall in love.

To 5 Sept, 020-7486 2431

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