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The Pirates of Penzance

by on 10 October 2021

Fired-Up Fun

The Pirates of Penzance

 by Arthur Sullivan, libretto by W. S. Gilbert  

Opera Anywhere, Hampton Hill Theatre, 8th October then on tour until 13th June 2022

Review by Eleanor Marsh

Gilbert and Sullivan – the very names conjure up the image of a chorus of thousands, sumptuous costumes and set, full orchestra and an audience more likely to be humming the tunes on the way in than on the way out.    Opera Anywhere, however is a small touring company and a programme of one-nighters throughout the country does not lend itself to any of the above.  And this company do not attempt at any point during the performance to be anything that they are not, which results in a refreshingly innovative approach to this most traditional of traditional pieces.

All credit to Tristan Stocks, who as well as playing our handsome hero Frederic, is responsible for directing the piece, which was definitely the funniest production of this old warhorse that I’ve ever seen.  The device of every principal entering from the same door through the audience did get a little tired, but when it worked – and it worked best for Catrin Lewis’ Mabel – it worked well.  And a little predictability over entrances and exits is a small price to pay for squeezing so much humour out of Gilbert’s libretto.  There were gags where I’d never seen gags before and it did make me think how wonderful it must have been to have been in the audience for the first ever performance of the Savoy operas, when every joke was not only new, but topical too.

With a “chorus” of four, also doubling as named characters, there was never any possibility that the company would get away with just singing the notes.  Those four actor-singers were uniformly excellent, not only in singing well, but also in getting all the humour out of each character they played.   The chorus of ladies (who also doubled as Edith, Kate and a random policeman), comprised Freya Jacklin and Olivia Bell and they had some wonderful scene-stealing business that had the audience laughing out loud.  Really excellent performances from both.

Maciek O’Shea, Mark Horner and Sam Young as the “male chorus” – and also Samuel, Sergeant of Police and the Pirate King respectively were all fine singers with excellent comic timing and all got well into their stride during the evening and by the middle of Act Two they were on fire.  The courage of their own convictions would have seen them deliver performances of true excellence from the opening chorus.

It is very difficult to tour a show of this kind and the company absolutely understood that it is far more effective to rely on the material and performance and have a minimal set and basic costumes than to go overboard (pun intended) with a complicated design element to the show.  This simplicity of design was mirrored in the musical supervision by Matthew Rickard who wisely kept the accompaniment to piano and woodwind.  Less was definitely more and it was a real treat to see a company understand this so well.

The audience at Hampton Hill Theatre were audibly chuckling throughout the evening at a production that provided an element of fun that we’ve been lacking for the last year or so.

Eleanor Marsh, October 2021

Photography by John Alcock

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