Recaptured by the Pirates, and surrendering again to the other forgotten lures of youth

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Looking back to my teens, I realise that adolescence wasn't just a time for experimenting. It was a time for giving up as well. I think I probably abandoned more practices in my teens than I ever adopted or persevered with, or indeed that I have abandoned since. For instance, before I reached the age of 19 or 20 I had already stopped writing poetry, playing rugby, playing the trombone, trying to learn Welsh, taking bagpipe lessons, doing the high jump, attempting to master ballroom dancing, having homosexual leanings, and reading Agatha Christie and Dennis Wheatley. I haven't done any of them since, not once. Occasionally I regret not having learnt Welsh, and when I was 19 I used to feel sorry I had managed to read all Agatha Christie's books without leaving any to look forward to (but then I discovered Raymond Chandler), despite which I go through life on the whole without a backward glance to that far-off, oddly assorted collection of enthusiasms.

However, the other day I did go back. Not to any of the above practices, but to something I thought had been eradicated by over-exposure in my teens - to an evening of Gilbert and Sullivan. My parents sent me to the kind of school that liked to put on Gilbert and Sullivan productions because they were safe and not to difficult and sexless and full of opportunities for musicians and performers and carpenters, and so I found myself from time to time playing bit parts in The Mikado, and HMS Pinafore, and lots more. And because Gilbert wrote very good jokes and Sullivan wrote very good tunes, I enjoyed it and it all stuck in my mind somewhere, like a deserted pool in the woods, no longer visited but all still there.

I never thought of going to see a Gilbert and Sullivan opera when I grew up, partly because I had grown up, partly because it was the sort of thing it was more fun to do yourself than see someone else doing, and partly because my experience at school taught me that if you saw G & S done by complete strangers, it wasn't half as good as when you knew everyone in the cast. I had been taken occasionally to see D'Oyley Carte productions, which were dead from the waist up and down, and had once see a film of HMS Pinafore ... done by Americans which was such an awful concept that, mentally, I walked out of it.

(Interestingly, the Americans are often nuts about Gilbert and Sullivan. I have never worked out why. Is there any other nation in the world that even knows about G & S? Have the French come to terms with them yet? The Germans ...? )

And then this week the Theatre Royal, Bath, was home for a week to The Pirates of Penzance done by the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I knew about the WYP. They were, apparently, wonderful. Their productions were often reviewed in places like Kaleidoscope, and always raptly, and put on in Leeds, which I couldn't get to. They probably had done a good job on The Pirates of Penzance. I then discovered that neither my wife nor my son had ever seen any G & S, so off we went tentatively and fearfully on Monday, and I have to report that everyone thought it was terrific. Much better than I remember it from my teens.

This was partly because the material itself stood up quite well, like a mature if slightly staid pantomime, but mostly because the production took liberties which D'Oyley Carte would never have dreamt of, without sabotaging it. Wherever things were a bit staid or slow, they camped it up a bit - the policemen, especially, were gratifyingly over the top led by a wonderfully rubbery Sergeant (Stephen Matthews), the Pirate King (Jeremy Harrison) managed to be funny as well as tremendously dashing, while hero Frederic was terribly tall and handsome, and had a lovely voice. ...

(I looked up Frederic in the programme to see who he was played by, and found it was an actor called Mark Umbers, of whom his programme biographical note said: "The Pirates of Penzance is Mark's first professional theatre work." Blimey. If that was his first job, apart from one or two bits on TV, he's going to go far ...)

Well, in years to come will I look back at this moment as the start of my second childhood? The moment when I started reverting to lost pleasures? Is that an Agatha Christie novel I see before me? Will I have another bash at the bagpipes? Or the waltz?

Well, of course not. The idea is quite ludicrous. But then, so was the idea of giving Gilbert and Sullivan another go.

I had better watch myself.