The Pirates of Penzance, Gielgud Theatre, London
Friday 22 February 2008
Peter Mulloy's feisty period stagings of the Savoy Operas have proved beyond reasonable doubt that you don't need elaborate and gimmicky stage values to raise the necessary chuckles with these well-worn pieces. An experienced crew of singing actors and a strong sense of English eccentricity will do nicely.
So when Jo Brand belatedly stormed on yelling, "where's me bleedin' helmet?", while brandishing a rolling pin instead of a truncheon, the sexual revolution WS Gilbert never dared dream of became a reality with the Pirates' first (as far as I know) female Police Sergeant. Brand apologised in advance for her "decidedly mediocre" performance in the programme. But she was "up for it", I think the term is, and though conspicuously miked when all around her were not, she made a modest fist of her big number.
Meanwhile, the plot had thickened beyond all logical redemption with a motley crew of unlikely pirates led by Steven Page's virile-voiced but not so black-hearted Pirate King. The objects of their desires – the Major-General's shapely wards of chancery – had arrived earlier with a humungous trolley of luggage, maps, telescopes, and, of course, afternoon tea and cakes. Sophie-Louise Dann's Edith certainly turned heads with eyes so big and an accent so far back that later confusions between the words "orphan" and "often" already made perfect sense.
But pirate apprentice Frederic (a lithe and sweet-voiced David Curry), lately of Eton and Oxford, has eyes only for Mabel, sung by Deborah Myers with a coloratura and piping top notes roughly commensurate with her determination to score Frederic.
How cleverly Sullivan contrasts her vocals with the pneumatic contralto of the Piratical Maid, Ruth (Beverley Klein), whom the Pirate King so tactfully declares has "the remains of a fine woman about her".
You see, the lines are funny if you play them with aplomb and if, in the case of Barry Clark's "very model of a modern Major-General", you can get your tongue around them without your teeth falling out.
The comparative intimacy of a theatre like the Gielgud only adds to the period charm of these pieces, while the acoustic immediacy of a real theatre band (under Richard Balcombe) really brings the vitality and gorgeousness of Sullivan's tunes home.
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