Libretto: William Schwenk Gilbert
Composer: Arthur Sullivan
Director: Richard Gauntlett
Musical Director: Andrew Nicklin
Choreographer: Jackie O’Brien
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival follows up six days at Buxton Opera House with nearly two weeks at Harrogate’s Royal Hall, with a comprehensive fringe programme in Harrogate International Centre, one of the halls converted into a social centre and informal theatre for the duration. The performances of the professional National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company are at the heart of the Royal Hall programme, with new productions of four operas this year.
Gilbert & Sullivan’s early operas have a freshness, a breeziness, an unself-conscious silliness that sometimes eludes their later collaborations – and The Pirates of Penzance, which followed their first runaway success H.M.S. Pinafore, is a prime example of this. Imagine a plot depending on a child being apprenticed to a pirate, rather than a pilot; a young man whose sense of duty is so acute that he insists on serving out his indentures much as he abhors piracy; a nouveau riche Major General with a whole chorus line of devoted, and marriageable, daughters; and a 21-year-old treated as a child of “five and a little bit over” because he was born on February 29th! And, as for plot resolution, what could be better than a band of pirates who surrender at the mention of Queen Victoria’s name? Or sparing them punishment because they are all “noblemen who have gone wrong”? What has happened to such respect for the nobly born?
The NGSOC specialises in productions that are broadly traditional and Richard Gauntlett’s production rollicks along in the approved manner. Innovations are a mixed blessing: the Can-Can encore for “With cat-like tread” is a gem, but, though the all-dancing Keystone Cops police troupe under Matthew Kellett’s manic sergeant is very well done, in this case, subtler is funnier.
Matthew Siveter’s Pirate King is in the traditional style: large in every way, including vocally, with a winning mixture of venomous cruelty and soft-hearted innocence. Mae Heydorn brings real authority to Ruth, the “piratical maid of all work”, though she hardly fits the constant references to being old and plain. Gauntlett’s decision may have been gallant and politically correct, but it messes up several of Gilbert’s non-PC gags.
Gauntlett himself preens and patters to the manner born as Major General Stanley and Ellen Angharad Williams delivers a star turn as Mabel, notably in a terrific “Poor wandering one”, full of self-admiration like a dummy run for Yum-Yum, even though she can’t quite match the exemplary diction of most of the cast. David Menezes’ forthright Frederic, the pirate apprentice, takes time to establish his personality, but dutifully links together all the wild excesses of the plot.
Though NGSOC doesn’t acknowledge a designer, things look pretty good, with nice use of a treasure map in the economical staging and costumes that are as colourful as they should be. Andrew Nicklin conducts in suitably lively style and the chorus is excellent, Major General Stanley’s daughters, in particular, all winsome expressions and cleverly choreographed moves, with the three solo parts making a real impact.
The International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival continues at the Royal Hall until August 18, 2019 Image: Jane Stokes