The Pirates Of Penzance, Savoy Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

It's the old show-within-a-show trick - The Pirates of Penzance on Paignton Pier. You have to hand it to the director Steven Dexter - it's one way of disarming criticism. As end-of-pier entertainments go, his displays a tatty authenticity. To be fair, there are all kinds of technical reasons why this show is not yet ready to go before a paying audience. But they should not concern the paying audience - or even partisan first-nighters. There's just so much you can throw at a Gilbert and Sullivan revamp in the the hope that some of it will stick. If the incident of strenuous mugging on opening night was anything to go by, Dexter's cast were desperate to throw much of it back where it came from.

It has been said before but Gilbert and Sullivan requires - no, demands - a deft touch. Camp is fine when applied with sure timing and a knowing wit. Neither was much in evidence here. If you can't see the plot for the sight-gags, you're in trouble. The sad thing is that Dexter's basic premise is a promising one. A seaside entertainment very much of its time with side-show attractions providing the back-drop to the unfolding comedy of manners. Painted Victorian poster-banners (designer Francis O'Connor) glide and swivel across the stage: "General Stanley's Daughters" is one such attraction; Frederic and Mabel "take heart" from the "Tunnel of Love" in "Poor Wandering One" ; "The Haunted House" serves as the Major-General's family seat replete with airborne ghosts (Pirates is in repertoire with Peter Pan so waste not, want not, when you've got the flying gear, flaunt it). A brief prologue shows us Frederic as a boy posing for one of those end-of-pier novelty photos, his head super-imposed on the body of a pirate. And suddenly he is a pirate. Neat.

But Dexter doesn't know when to stop. There's a lot of mileage in the music-hall idea but when the climax of all this endeavour is a rowdy Broadway spoof for the number "Sighing Softly to the River" you don't just wonder if the director has lost his reason, you know. Why? "With cat-like tread" does the self-same thing. That, surely, is the big high-strutting, high-kicking Broadway moment. One will do.

There are few survivors from this sinking ship. Hadley Fraser shines as Frederic, bags of energy, charm, and voice; and his wholesome Mabel - Elin Wyn Lewis - makes a promising professional debut, even if her chest and head voices still sound too much like separate events. The wonderful Kathryn Evans is wasted as Ruth. A telling look at her imaginary watch after one late music cue seemed to sum up her frustration. Jack Chissick's Major-General was hardly the very model of intelligible patter; David Burt's Sergeant of Police, leading from the rear, of course, made a meal of his moment cowering alone in the spotlight at the awful realisation of mass desertion in the lower ranks.

But what of the Pirate King, I hear you ask? Star of the show, charismatic, flamboyant, rambunctious. I wish. Anthony Head seemed to think it was enough just to turn up. He's doubling as Captain Hook in Peter Pan. So it isn't just the crocodile, then, who's bitten off more than he can chew.

To 20 March (0870 164 8787)