by John Spring-White
Gilbert and Sullivan is hard to do well but director Steven Day, choreographer Lorraine Porter and set designer Grant Alvarez staged an excellent production of “Pirates of Penzance” at the Kenneth More Theatre, last week. They did this without losing any of the essence of the original (first staged in 1879). The cast injected vivacious energy into a fast paced rendition of this classic operetta.
So often, when attempting G&S operettas the subtlety of the plot is lost in the fast pace because the words are indistinct. On this occasion, the diction was clear and the sound was balanced superbly to ensure that no member of the audience, wherever they were seated, lost a single syllable. The production very successfully captured the seriously silly mayhem of paradoxical and conflicting nonsense that “Pirates of Penzance” is all about.
This coming-of-age story follows Frederic (Phillip Rowlands) who was apprenticed to a pirate king (Lee Thompson) after his nurse, Ruth (Diana Fairbairn-Smith), due to mishearing a command, mistakenly has him apprenticed to be a pirate instead of a ship’s pilot. As a boy, Frederic fulfils his duties as an apprentice, but once his contract ends at age 21, he follows his calling to end piracy altogether and meets and falls in love with Mabel (Catlin Downie), one of the daughters of Major General Stanley (Jeremy Smith). Frederic finds out that he was born on 29 February and so, technically, has a birthday only once in every four years. His apprenticeship indentures state that he remains apprenticed to the pirates until he reaches the age of 21 years and, so, he must serve another 63 years. Bound by his own sense of duty, Frederic’s only solace is that Mabel agrees to wait for him faithfully.
Phillip Rowlands confidently played Frederic as a splendidly vacuous hero, while Diana Fairbairn-Smith as his smitten middle-aged nurse found a whole new area of hurt and darkness in the role. Lee Thompson as the Spanish Pirate King was muscular, lascivious, and humorous and delivered “….. I am a Pirate King…” with gusto. He was ably supported by the pirate Samuel played by Ralph Halpin.
Jeremy Smith brought to the stage an hilarious level of strutting and buffoonery, as the Major-General, and delivered his signature song with clarity and machine gun rapidity.
It seems unfair to highlight individuals in this thoroughly entertaining show. Rachel Dreese, Siobhan Schofield and Jane Pavett led the enchanting daughters of Major-General Stanley and the highly amusing police officers were kept in order by their sergeant, expertly played by knee-bending Steve Liversedge.