29 April 2010

The Pirates of Penzance - Wiltons Music Hall, Wednesday 28th April 2010


On the coast of Cornwall, a gang of pirates play and party as Frederic (a pirate apprentice) reminds the pirate king that his obligation to the gang is soon over. He was apprenticed to the pirates only until his twenty-first birthday, which is that day, and he is leaving them. Ruth (Frederic’s nursery maid when he was younger) explains that Frederic should never have been a pirate except for her mistake: She was told to apprentice Frederic to a pilot, but she misunderstood and placed him with a pirate instead.
Frederic tells the pirates that, after he leaves the gang, he intends to destroy them, not because he doesn’t love them, but because he loathes what they do. He is a slave of duty and, when no longer a pirate, it will be his duty to destroy them. The pirates understand, and also complain that they cannot seem to make money. Because Frederic is a slave-of-duty to the pirates until noon, he tells them why: Because they are all orphans, the pirates will not rob another orphan; and since all their potential victims are aware of this, they all claim to be orphans!
Because Frederic has spent his entire life with the pirates, he has never seen another woman; thus he thinks he may want to take Ruth with him as his wife. He asks Ruth if she is beautiful, and she responds that she is. Frederic, a very trusting young man, says that he believes Ruth and he will not let her age come between them.At this point, however, Frederic sees a group of beautiful young women, realizes he was betrayed by Ruth, and rejects her. Frederic informs the girls that he is a pirate, but not for long. He asks if any of the girls will marry him, and the youngest, Mabel, agrees.
The pirates enter the scene, and each grabs a girl. Major-General Stanley enters and identifies himself as the girls’ father, demanding to know what is taking place. When the pirates tell Major-General Stanley that they intend to marry his daughters, he objects, saying he has an aversion to having pirates for sons-in-law; the pirates respond that they are opposed to having major-generals as fathers-in-law, but that they will put aside the objection.
Knowing about the pirates’ weakness, Major-General Stanley tells them he is an orphan and, thus, disarms the pirates and saves his daughters. However, he soon feels guilty about the lie he told the pirates. Frederic, however, has a plan to lead a squad of zany policemen against his old gang. Before he can act, however, the pirate king and Ruth arrive to tell him that he is still obligated to the pirates. Because Frederic was born on Leap Year Day, 29th February, he has served only five birthdays, not the twenty-one required by his contract. A strong sense of duty forces Frederic to relent, and, because he is a member of the pirate band again, to reveal the truth that Major-General Stanley is not an orphan. The pirate king vows that he will have revenge on the major-general.

Mabel enters and begs Frederic not to go back to the pirates, but bound by duty, he leaves. The police ready their attack on the pirates, while the pirates creep in to take revenge on the major-general. The pirates defeat the police. However, when Ruth divulges that the pirates are really noblemen and they swear their allegiance to the queen, the tables are turned--and the police take the pirates prisoner. However, because the pirates have never really hurt anyone, they are soon forgiven. The ex-pirates win the girls, Frederic wins Mabel, and everyone lives happily ever after.


Frederick: Russell Whitehead
Mabel: Alan Richardson
Pirate King: Ricky Rojas
Ruth: Samuel Holmes
Major General Stanley: Fred Broom
Sergeant of Police: Joe Maddison
Samuel: Michael Burgen
Edith: Stewart Charlesworth
Connie: Lee Greenway
Isabel: Chris Theo-Cook
Kate: Christopher Wheeler

Creative Team
Director: Sasha Regan
Choreographer: Lizzie Gee
Musical Director: Chris Mundy
Designer: Robyn Wilson
Costumes: Frances Jones
Lighting: Steve Miller

Think Gilbert and Sullivan is outdated and old hat? Think again, my friends, think again. Hie yourself off to the sunny coast of Cornwall (currently in residence at the wonderfully atmospheric Wilton’s Music Hall, deep in the heart of Jack the Ripper territory) and have your preconceptions thrown away. But make it quick – this production isn’t going to be around for much longer and it deserves to be seen. The production’s “gimmick” is that its an all male cast (making for a fairly high PPSI ratio in the audience) but played more or less “straight” – and this just serves to make it even funnier. Henry Lytton, who took over the G&S comic roles in the early 1900s, once made a very good point about how to play the comedy parts in the operettas, saying

Now, if an actor in these operas has to be careful of one thing above everything else, it is that of avoiding forcing a point. Gilbert's wit is so neat and so beautifully phrased that it would be utterly spoilt by buffoonery. The lines must be declaimed in deadly seriousness just as if the actor believes absolutely in the fanciful and extravagant thing he is saying. I can think of no better illustration of this than the scene in Iolanthe where Strephon rejects recourse to the Chancery Court and says his code of conduct is regulated only by "Nature's Acts of Parliament." The Lord Chancellor then talks about the absurdity of "an affidavit from a thunderstorm or a few words on oath from a heavy shower." What a typical Gilbertian fancy! Well, you know how the "comic" man would say that, how he would whip up his coat collar and shiver at the suggestion of rain, and how he would do his poor best to make it sound and look "funny." And the result would be that he would kill the wittiness of the lines by burlesque. The Lord Chancellor says the words as if he believes an affidavit from a thunderstorm was at least a possibility, and the suggestion that he does think it possible makes the very idea, in the audience's mind, more whimsical still.
This tenet has obviously been at the forefront of the creative team’s vision for this production and it works like a dream. It’s not burlesque (no wigs or outrageous make-up, for instance) - it just happens to be an all male cast, who are not “consciously” playing women. Yes, its camp (with a fairly high PPSI quotient in the audience), but then G&S is camp anyway. What makes the production stand out is its energy, its commitment, its creativeness and, and above all, its humour. I really can’t remember the last time I heard an audience laugh so much at a show that’s rapidly approaching its 125th birthday. Not only is the (by now very familiar) dialogue made funny again, but there are visual jokes coming at you thick and fast from the moment the first person steps on the stage. Its simply but extremely effectively staged, leaving your mind free to focus on stage groupings and placings and to enjoy facial expressions and interactions (nobody on stage actually stops acting the entire way through). You actually start to forget that these are all men because you’re enjoying what they are doing so much. I haven’t enjoyed a production of Pirates so much for a good long time. This performance simply made me appreciate just how good it was – it takes all that is good about G&S and acknowledges its history, yet re-invents it for a new audience. It doesn't try to pickle the show in aspic, nor treats it with such reverence that it falls under its own weight. Its light-hearted, fun, inventive and (in the main) well sung.
Of course, the operetta die-hard in me has a few quibbles. A couple of the performances failed to stand out as much as they might have done, mainly that of the Pirate King - this role can go for nothing if not played with enough bravura and swagger. Although Ricky Rojas played the part well enough (with a strong Spanish accent of the “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father; prepare to die” variety), he lacked the proper vocal weight that the role requires; it needs to be sung with a decent bass-baritone register. The Sergeant of Police is always a role that the least-vocally talented member of a Pirates company gets landed with and this production is no exception. Russell Whitehead, although having a pleasant enough voice, lacked true vocal power in the operatic sense and had insufficient range to hit some of Frederic’s top notes. It would seem churlish, however, to criticise Alan Richardson for his relatively small voice and for not being able to tackle “her” cadenza – how often do you hear a man singing with a more than passable soprano voice?

The performance that really blew me away, however, was Samuel Jones’s Ruth. Looking like a dishevelled umbrella, Mr. Jones’ portrayal really made me look at the relationship between Ruth and Frederick in a way that I’d never seen it before. It was a lesson in what can be made of one of Gilbert’s unsympathetic “old bag” parts by a talented actor, completely opened up the part and made what can be a fairly throwaway character (even though it’s quite a big part) into a major player, both in terms of the actual plot and the character’s relationships with other people in the story. Jones’ performance should be viewed and noted by every amateur contralto who thinks that Ruth is a “non-part”. Coming up close behind on the rails was Fred Broom’s Major-General, played like a cross between something from the pages of Punch and a music-hall MC (although he couldn’t manage “I am the very model of a modern Major-General) at anything like the required speed).
I liked the two-tiered stage and the very simple but extremely effective “set”, consisting really of nothing more than a large stack of wooden crates, piled up to represent sand dunes, and which gave good opportunities for groupings and stage pictures. I also loved the fact that Major-General Stanley’s “horse” was nothing more than an old broom and will remember the “feeding the horse a carrot” sight gag for a very long time! In fact, seeing that Him Indoors is known to occasionally direct the odd production of Pirates, I may well insist that this particular gag makes an appearance in the next one. Lighting was extremely effective and costumes, although basic, were clever and appropriate; the fact that they were all basically white and/or cream cleverly brought the production together as a “unit” without detracting from the whole.

I think Messrs Gilbert and Sullivan (once they had finished chuntering into their whiskers, of course, about the impropriety of it all), would have enjoyed the evening thoroughly. Go book your tickets now. You’ll be glad you did.

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