'Pirates' played as panto in the park

<i>The Pirates of Penzance </i>and <i>Alice - An Adventure in Wonderland </i>| Regent's Park Open Air Theatre; <i>Pageant</i> | Vaudeville, London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Lesley Manville, who played Kitty Sullivan in Topsy Turvy, Mike Leigh's recent Gilbert and Sullivan biopic, once told me that she thought the composers of the Savoy operas were the Sex Pistols of the 19th century. Which, I suppose, makes The Pirates of Penzance their Frigging in the Rigging. Watching Ian Talbot's revival at the Regent's Park Open Air theatre, however, it was very hard to see her point. If there ever was any trace of radicalism or edginess, it was exterminated long ago - mainly, I suspect, by its loudest advocates. Talbot's cast is no exception: they do exactly what you'd expect of any self-respecting modern interpreters of G&S - they play it like panto for people who can't quite understand English.

Lesley Manville, who played Kitty Sullivan in Topsy Turvy, Mike Leigh's recent Gilbert and Sullivan biopic, once told me that she thought the composers of the Savoy operas were the Sex Pistols of the 19th century. Which, I suppose, makes The Pirates of Penzance their Frigging in the Rigging. Watching Ian Talbot's revival at the Regent's Park Open Air theatre, however, it was very hard to see her point. If there ever was any trace of radicalism or edginess, it was exterminated long ago - mainly, I suspect, by its loudest advocates. Talbot's cast is no exception: they do exactly what you'd expect of any self-respecting modern interpreters of G&S - they play it like panto for people who can't quite understand English.

Not that there's anything intrinsically bad about the production. Purists, perhaps, may take umbrage at the use of Sam Papp's tarted-up Broadway version of the score - which includes some very nasty synth arrangements that you'd have to be John Shuttleworth to appreciate. And some of the voices - particularly that of the romantic lead, Frederick (Mark Umbers) - have a bit too much Michael Ball vibrato than seems decent. Otherwise, all the now-traditional elements are in place: the in-jokes, the mugging and goggling, the agreeably inane physical comedy, the good-natured joshing with the preternaturally indulgent audience. You know the deal: pirates, maidens, police constables and modern major-generals bounce on stage, announce their identities, and bounce off again. It's perfectly acceptable middlebrow theatre for people who don't really like theatre very much.

But as I watched an excellent cast bluster and twitter their way through the night, trying to guess what motivation they were finding to justify their gurning responses to other people's lines, I couldn't help wondering whether there might be another way of performing this material - something that avoided the blowsiness of this production without retreating into the ossified formality favoured by the D'Oyly Carte company. Pirates is musical comedy, of course, a comic opera which happily incorporates a large number of absurd elements - pirates who turn out to be peers, a hero who has never clapped eyes on a woman under the age of 47, and such. But wouldn't it be interesting to see it done with some subtlety and restraint? If Peter Sellars, maybe, could be persuaded to take the show and strip it of its accumulated carapace of corny topical add-ons, rehearsed ad-libs and interpolated singalongs, and try to get it to function as a coherent dramatic work?

It might be terrifically boring, of course - but it should at least solve some basic problems of presentation. How to negotiate the opera's high romantic moments, for instance - which, in the middle of all this end-of-the-pier flummery, are impossible to take seriously. Or what to do about the physical comedy. The energetic dance routines and meaningless pratfalls through which Talbot forces his cast - even Paul Bradley's blimpish major-general - often leaves them gasping for breath and unable to control the fractal complexities of Gilbert's text. (And the radio mikes - which bob from the foreheads of the company like unpleasantly pendulous warts - pick up every last desperate inhalation.) But if audiences continue to tolerate such slack, obvious interpretations, if nobody attempts to treat the Savoy composers intelligently, then Gilbert and Sullivan have no future worth having. Their work will become nothing more than an embarrassing English eccentricity, like morris dancing or institutional racism in the police force. And it may already have happened. Sound the last ta-ran-ta-ra...

A more imaginative treatment of a Victorian source can be found at the same venue during the hours of daylight. Unicorn Theatre for Children's Carrolline reworking of Alice - An Adventure in Wonderland sends Rosalind Paul's heroine down the rabbit hole to a world teeming with comic monstrosities - all played by the same five actors in different hats. The clear highlight is the scene extrapolated from the "Pig and Pepper" chapter, in which Lynette Clarke's Duchess - a rumbustious Jamaican dancehall queen - terrorises her sneezing porcine baby, which, for some reason is stuffed into a supermarket trolley filled with dirty pots and pans. Very satisfying. I was puzzled by two things, however. Firstly, it seems a bit mean to have Humpty Dumpty's reduction to a sludge of shell fragments and spilled albumen precipitated by Alice herself. And secondly, why do all grown-up actresses called upon to play little girls always stiffen their spines, stick their arms out and launch into a Sylvestra Le Touzel impersonation?

There's nothing in Unicorn's Wonderland quite as wondrous as the sight of Lionel Blair in a ribbed bodysuit and golden deeley-boppers tap-dancing up an illuminated glass staircase in the company of six statuesque drag queens. To clock this spectacle, you'll have to see Pageant, a kooky satire on the American beauty circuit, which inspired a celebrity audience (well, Cilla, Dale and Babs) to a standing ovation. And quite right too. Bill Russell's musical, imported from off-Broadway to the West End via the King's Head, is brazenly funny entertainment. More importantly, it witnesses Lionel Blair's reinvention as a luminous, orange-skinned pensioner sex god. That skin, like star-spangled chamois leather. Those new false teeth, a teensy bit whistly, but stellar in their brilliance. "You've got it all," he croons to a six-foot-something man in a frock, "plus something extra!" He's magnificent. Can't we have him as our new Queen Mother?

As for Blair's babes, they ought to be giving classes to the cast of The Pirates of Penzance on how to overact with style. This isn't subtle material: Miss West Coast (Miles Western) incapacitates herself with feminine hygiene products; Miss Deep South (Dale Mercer) attempts to impress the judges by belting out "The Camptown Races" with the aid of a pair of ventriloquist's dummies; Miss Industrial North East (Leon Maurice-Jones) murders the accordion on roller skates. Gurning, goggling and mugging, for sure - but precisely done by performers who are confident that their material requires and responds to such delivery, not ones who are afraid that people will get bored if they don't keep wiggling their eyebrows.

'The Pirates of Penzance': Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, NW1 (020 7486 2431) to 5 Sept; 'Alice - An Adventure in Wonderland': Open Air Theatre to 26 Aug; 'Pageant': Vaudeville, WC2 (020 7836 9987) to 25 Nov

Comments