Savoy Opera: Pirates are all at sea

THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE

THE QUEEN'S THEATRE

LONDON

A SHABBY makeshift pelmet hangs over the stage of the Queen's Theatre, photographs of Gilbert and Sullivan ignominiously displayed in crumpled papier mache frames. So much for the preservation of our national treasures. Snubbed by the Arts Council of England, the future of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company - self-proclaimed guardians of the G&S tradition - has been in doubt. Questions have been asked in the House. Which is why the people's champion, Raymond Gubbay, has ridden to the rescue.

So how come this tatty seasonal revival of The Pirates of Penzance looks and behaves as if it's arrived about a century too late? How come extinction suddenly seems like a better bet than preservation? Is this the shapelessness of things to come, or one final reminder that the financial situation is indeed desperate?

Gubbay knows better than to serve up something as obviously penny- pinching as this to a West-End audience. For mise-en-scene read miserly- en-scene. Roger Kirk is credited as designer, but scenery like this isn't designed, it's discarded. Act Two is indeed "a draughty old ruin", but of what? The 1886 production of Ruddigore, as seen from behind?

Now, I love every last syllable and semi-quaver of the Savoy operas and it pains me to see them dragged out of hock in this way. You have two choices when mounting G&S today: either you preserve absolutely the style, texts, and traditions - in which case only the superlative will do - or you find ways (as witness the marvellous Miller Mikado at ENO) of sharpening up the ironies for a modern audience. Stuart Maunder's production manages neither. Rather, he recycles every cliche, every bad sight gag, in the dog-eared D'Oyly Carte manual. How funny the knee- bends of the constabulary could have been, if only the gag had been better choreographed. There were too many more where that came from.

The company were full of good intentions, though Jill Pert's Ruth and Richard Suart's Major-General should have been better. As Mabel, Anna- Clare Monk's soubrette was pretty enough, while Christopher Saunders gave us a sweetly sung Frederic. Their Act Two duet was the musical highlight of the evening - by which time our ears had adjusted to the somewhat weedy, though well deployed, nine-piece orchestra.

Biggest laugh of the evening: "With all our heart, we love our House of Peers." Not for much longer. Be warned, D'Oyly Carte.

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