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The Pirates of Penzance

by on 31 October 2019

A Delight of Wit, Talent and Charm

The Pirates of Penzance

by W.S Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan

HLO Musical Company, Hampton Hill Theatre until 2nd November

Review by Eliza Hall

This talented and popular company, until recently known as Hounslow Light Opera Company, has chosen to change its name to HLO Musical Company. The company says that the new name more readily matches themselves, their long history and more truly reflects what they perform. Indeed it does as we, the audience, were presented with a delightful night of song, dance and recitative of exceptional brilliance.

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From the moment the overture began when Lee Dewsnap, musical director and one man orchestra, who had arranged the full score for the company and conductor Matthew Newton sounded out the first of the familiar songs from the show, feet were tapping and the audience were engaged but eagerly anticipating the moment the curtains were lifted.

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No one could be disappointed by that first view of the set, the colours, costumes or with the singing of the opening number, set on a rocky cove on the coast of Cornwall. Strong mature voices were joined by the balcony choir and the pounding of the song celebrating the birthday of Frederic, a pirate, but not by choice, who having reached twenty-one years of age was able to end his ties with the pirates.

PirateKing1Kevin Chapman (Frederic), Felicity Morgan (Ruth) and Steve Taylor (Pirate King) set the scene and the story line, explaining the context to the ensuing tale with conviction, humour and strong voices. Delightfully successful harmonies with Felicity’s acting, her persuasive attentions were funny and sad and true to the G&S formula of pathos, the ridiculous and the cajoling of the audience into half believing the impossible. So the story enfolded, every scene a joy to behold. The choreography of the daughters of the Major General, chaperones and maids was clever and gentle. Singing supplemented by the balcony choir allowed for freer movement on stage for those acting, dancing and singing.

Mabel, played by Johanna Chambers, demurely glittered. Her astounding vocal range and strength of vocality along with clear diction, was a delight and she was so easily the seductress that Frederic was seeking. Her talent shone throughout the production and, like Felicity Morgan’s Ruth her voice was the perfect foil to Kevin Chapman’s Frederic.

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Clever little choreographic details meant the audience was constantly watching for expressions and individual reactions whilst keeping the whole movement and position together as a chorus. As they pointed to the upstage left, awaiting the cue for the entrance of the very model of a modern major general he pussyfooted in, downstage right. Such little, clever devices kept the audience laughing, applauding and attentive as the familiar music and rhythms could so easily have lulled the audience into false securities.

MajorGeneral1Tony Cotteril’s Major-General Stanley was what we all wanted to see – witty, weak, diminutive. Considering he is not small, he portrayed the figure convincingly and his many clever ad libs were such a valuable addition to the role, including his little reminder of HMS Pinafore. He ran the gauntlet with Steve Taylor’s Pirate King, the two making amazing music and repartee that kept the audience amused, quite amazed and full of admiration. Some excellent acting by both brought much well deserved applause.

The scene having been set and the dilemmas explained, we anticipated Act Two with delight. So, a word about the costumes and lighting before we return to the auditorium. The set (by Wesley Henderson Roe and team) and the lighting (Patrick Troughton) were of the usual high standard that audiences have come to expect from HLO Musical Company. Serviceable but appropriate as well as attractive, bearing in mind the large company and the growing number of people on stage – as we were to discover in Act Two. Lighting was used to change the mood, as well as depict the time of day or night, and was effective. Three lights at the very top of the backdrop were fine when they were sometimes blue, but from the back row downstairs were a little too hard on some of the older members of the audience whose eyesight becomes more sensitive with age. Just a thought when bearing in mind the needs of an audience. They may have been acceptable upstairs as I don’t think they would been seen. Comments from those sitting lower down in the stalls where the lights were more obvious seem favourable and not intrusive. Nevertheless, having made this little concern, the stage was very well lit and nothing could be missed – no one would want to miss any of the meaningful glances and expressions that worked their way through the storylines between characters. Some telling expressions added and supported the dialogue itself. Sound was good, well placed microphones were not intrusive and effective.

Daughters1Costumes were very convincing. A chorus line of Kate Greenaways at the beginning of the song Climbing Over Rocky Mountains and led by Edith (Andrea Wilkins ) with the other daughters, chaperones and maids in this and the following Stop Ladies Stop were all enchanting . Singing and dancing at the same time was well coordinated and supported well by the choir on the balcony. The colours of these ladies outfits were complementary and demure and added to their role rather than breaking the flow of action on stage. Even the outstanding Mabel was not dressed to impress, but matched the others’ attire, leaving the focus entirely on her singing and acting. How delightful to see the chaperones in dignified and elegant gowns and matching bonnets, that were also individual but did not overwhelm the audience’s attention from the chaperones’ part in the production.

Ruth1The outstanding costumes of the King of the Pirates and Major-General Stanley were flamboyant and commanding and fitting for their personalities- as well as actually fitting well. Velvets and silk dressing gowns, army style worsted and navy police uniforms; all good tailoring all round. Even Frederic scrubbed up impressively in Act Two. Fabrics were appropriate, even down to the stereotyping of Pirate’s socks and knickerbockers. Ill-fitting uniforms and helmets were just as delightful and equally appropriate on the Policemen, adding to the comedy and enjoyment.

Personally, I found Ruth’s pirate costume the best. A touch of the swashbuckling pantaloons combined with a picture book nursery rhyme dress. Felicity wore it as a female but pranced as a male and enabled her to look and play her part. Feminine enough and boyish enough to work for her character really well in her attempt to persuade Frederic that 47 was a good marrying age.

Choreography came into its own in the second act. A big applause of respect should be awarded to Karen Munday as well as her assistant, Faye Ellingham. We were in for several treats, the librettos and trios between Ruth, Frederic and Pirate King lightened up entirely by the entrance of the police corps and their wonderfully choreographed routine. Bellies to the fore and with perfect chorusing, enabled them to be united in their singing and disunited in sizes, shapes and their smaller actions. Very funny, they were the most comical part of the evening, they nearly stole the show but then the Sergeant of Police, who sang with force (excuse the pun) Police1and conviction, Paul Chambers, is (Mabel’s) Johanna Chamber’s real father and he surely would not want to steal (!) her glory, even though he made an engaging sergeant and used his voice well.

As more of the company filled the stage the tempo, the tension and the resolution were reached. Pathos and poignancy mingled as in so many of G&S’s operettas and this company managed to do just this. Whether it is experience and confidence or just excellent directing, it is difficult to pull the production apart to discover. There is no doubt that the director , Gareth Bevan, brings both excellent credentials in experience and success, understands singing, production and enjoys working with the accomplished team that constitutes the HLO as a whole. His enthusiasm for Gilbert and Sullivan, and in particular, Pirates of Penzance shines through. Here, he has worked with a team of experts in their own right, from a cast where some of the singers have small parts, Isabel (Harriet Muir), Kate (Anne Pringle) and the equally convincing Samuel, played by Paul Higgins, to the lead singers, all have lists of successful contributions to both HLO and elsewhere and come with a joy of Gilbert and Sullivan that is evident in their performances. No weak ones here. All contribute to making this a professionally acceptable and delightful production, the full chorus with no speaking parts have plenty to offer in their singing and acting, particularly the policemen – and the small one on the back row with an over large helmet just make this performance a delight and a refreshing evening of wit, talent and charm.

The Finale arrived too soon for us Gilbert and Sullivan fans. Richard Stockton explains in the programme that changes were made to include the original version of the Finale as performed in New York and London where some songs were reinstated. In this way, links to Act One are heard and tie in well, completing or resonating words are cleverly made. Sighing Softly by the River sung by the Major-General and the Pirates leads seamlessly into the Finale with a crowded stage and for the audience this is a satisfactory end to the production. A significant achievement by the director and musical director and the whole of the cast for the team work and the dedication to make the production a success was clear, the harmony was not just in the singing, dancing and acting – and there was plenty of that – but in the whole of the production and cast. Pirates of Penzance is one not to be missed.

Eliza Hall
October 2019

Photography by John Malone

One Comment
  1. Steve Hopkins permalink

    Thank you so very much for this encouraging and excellent review…….

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