Review - Pirates of Penzance, Broadway Version

A policeman's lot may not be a happy one, but was Barnaby Eaton-Jones' lot happy as he watched The Pirates of Penzance, an amateur production of the Broadway version presented by The Cotswold Savoyards at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham...

‘For I am the Pirate King!
And it is, it is a glorious thing,
To be a Pirate King!’

Like the scholarly staples of plays by William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward and Alan Ayckbourn for a community theatre group, no amateur musical company would be complete without have performed at least one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic operettas.

They are more than a rite of passage, they are a wonderment in witty lyrics and dialogue; with bouncy, beautiful tunes and characters played larger than life. The plots are gloriously simplistic, in order to hang scenes and songs on, but the music is complex and the lyrics complicated. The trick is to make it all seem like an easy, breezy romp that you threw together in an afternoon.

‘The Pirates of Penzance’ is one of the triumvirate of their most popular productions, along with ‘H.M.S. Pinafore’ and ‘The Mikado’. For me, it is their best and – like others – has evolved over time to keep it fresh.

This particular production is the acclaimed Broadway version, which was originated in America (surprise, surprise!), with some irreverent reinvention and some inspired casting. This ‘new’ production was directed by Joseph Papp and featured Kevin Kline as the Pirate King, Linda Ronstadt as Mabel, Rex Smith as Frederick, Patricia Routledge as Ruth and George Rose as the Major General. It was multi-award winning and soon, with swashbuckling speed, it was opening in the West End, as well as many major countries across the world. The Pirate King ruled the sea and stage!

The only downside with anchoring your theatrical troupe to this particular production is, if you know your D’Oyle Cart from your Carte D’Or (one is the company who performed all of the original works and the other is an interval ice-cream), you’ll compare it. Plus, you may hate it. Purists of Gilbert & Sullivan are uncomfortable with what is, sort of, a send-up of the original operetta – with key changes, new orchestral arrangements, songs borrowed from the G&S back catalogue, and a bold in-yer-face style that audiences for this brand of musical theatre weren’t used to. As with everything in the 1980s, it came at you loud, it was bold, and it can now be looked back on as a little bit crass.

However, it’s this version that I’m most familiar with and I absolutely love it. For me, reinvention is the way to keep these things alive and – although you have to be faithful, it doesn’t mean you can’t be individual.

So, what of The Cotswold Savoyards production, you may ask? After all, this has been a rather epic pre-amble to get to the point of the review.

Well, it was loud, it was bold and it was crass. And that’s a GOOD thing. It did everything you’d expect and yet it added a little more idiosyncrasies from a regular set of actors who – if you’ve seen them before – bring certain qualities to the stage.

What was noted straight away was the ingenuity of the set, which looked like a Victorian child’s play theatre and cleverly used the large ship as what it was intended for as well as a new set when it was swivelled round the other way. It was classy and clever, with a clear nod to the era that the operetta was written in. Kudos for the design and the execution to the team from the Savoyards who always seem to come up trumps with staging and create something that’s always impressive from the get-go, which helps any production come to life in the eyes of the expectant audience. I’ve said it before in a previous review but it’s worth noting again that the distinction between professional and community theatre is a very blurred one, with the only true clear line being that one troupe are paid to produce and perform whilst another troupe perform and produce for the sheer love of it.

A lovely touch was for the show to start with some of the actors, in character, wandering around the auditorium and engaging in chatter as well as giving out chocolate gold coins. Tom Mullins, as Samuel – the Pirate King’s second-in-command – begins the entire show encouraging the audience to shout out and wake him up from a nap when the pirate ship arrives, which gets everyone into the jolly spirit of the production immediately. His deep baritone and knack for a comedy expression suited the role perfectly and he was the perfect person to ease us into the show.

So, it opens bombastically with the arrival of the Penzance pirates, waking up Samuel, and a motley crew they are. There was diversity in depth, with even the chorus pirates having developed distinct characters and costumes that diverted the eye. That’s what you need with your supporting players, a bravery in creating their own character regardless of whether they have dialogue or – sometimes – not even a name in the script. I can still see Rachel Prudden’s beautifully dangerous female buccaneer launching herself, dagger in hand, at a slight about no other ship-sailers being attractive females during young apprentice pirate Frederic’s announcement that he had no experience of whether a woman was attractive or not as he’d only known his nursemaid, Ruth (a frumpy lady of grey hair and dubious hearing). She was held back magnificently, as she fought unawares to get to him.

Once the pirates have arrived, then so hails the arrival of the Pirate King. He leaps energetically from the ship and spends most of the musical with his hands surgically attached to either his hips or a sword. Simon Lewis, in a role he clearly relishes every moment of, turns in a splendid performance of tongue-in-cheek delivery, with some brilliantly scripted (or possibly unscripted) ad-libs and a clear desire to ape Kevin Kline’s athletic origination of the role in this revival. He ranges from Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling swagger to Rowan Atkinson’s comedy clumsiness, which is no mean feat, and – if on occasions holds back on letting rip with the singing and the choreography – he puts every last pump of adrenalin into making sure the production has a fizz it needs to keep it afloat. You have to base your production around its lead and he lead by confident example. The great thing about this Pirate King is the idiocy he brings along with the swagger. One moment he’s macho and menacing, the next moment he’s pulling faces and performing pratfalls.

As Frederic leaves his apprenticeship behind, because he’s turned 21, he also leaves his nursemaid behind (who wants to marry him). Samuel Taunton’s foppish Frederic is a joy to behold, with what could have been a preening popinjay of a part being given a naïve campness which was still masculine enough not to unconvince. He played the comedy up and the love interest down, convincingly allowing the audience to sympathise when some small print in his apprenticeship contract means he can’t quite renounce his life of pirating after all.

But, for now, he has spied many a pretty maiden and eschews the advances of Ruth, who returns to the ship, and sets about trying to impress and protect the group of young ladies who have wandered into view.

An instant comic love is played out between Frederic and a maiden called Mabel, played with innocently amusing charm by Rebecca Grant-Jones who is the epitome of a beauty in a bonnet and a skylark during sunrise. Her voice soars to heights that you think might be unreachable and her vocal dexterity was a genuine delight to the ears. Aside from that, she also had a way of making her role both swooning and strong at the same time.

The pirates arrive on the scene, with evil intentions to marry all of these damsels in distress until their father marches into view – the Major General. His signature tune is rightly known the world over and Neal Carter-Lewis delivers it with aplomb, as well as being a delight to watch with his facial expressions and little bursts of energy that made him seem like an excitable child. It is a part ripe for letting rip in and he truly gave it his all, from blustering anger to weeping breakdown. He never put a foot wrong and was also a comical sight to behold at the start of Act Two in his nightshirt and nightcap.

The story, as I’ve said before, is flimsy and earlier on the Pirates have vowed never to attack or kill anyone who claims to be an orphan, which – of course – the Major claims he is.

So, the end of Act One sees the pirates slope off one way and the Major and his maidens slope off the other.

Act Two opens with the Major feeling guilty for tricking the pirates and worrying that his lie will be discovered, so he and Mabel implore Frederic to deal with him – who has already recruited the local constabulary to capture and kill the pirates. Of course, this rag-tag band of merry policemen (and women) are no more than a knock-kneed, Keystone Cops-esque, quivering mess of a force not to be reckoned with - lead with country bumpkin-like stoicism by Malcolm Webb. Here, the ensemble again, some of whom appeared as pirates before, are equally at home creating individual characters at the other end of the spectrum – being weak and afraid instead of strong and feared.

Mention must be made of Lisa-Marie Crowhurst, who plays the role of Edith (with such a sweet singing voice), but – possibly more importantly – choreographed the entire production. The constabulary’s constant clomping-in-time looked fiendishly difficult to achieve and there was a refreshing naturalness to what she asked the cast to do. I would assume it’s always very difficult when you have mixed abilities in a company but her direction was fluid and deceptively simple whilst giving much-needed movement. I have to say, I’d like to have seen more choreography because it worked so well, as there were a few scenes when the entire company were together for quite an extended period of time and just singing at the audience like a choir. It was gorgeous to listen to but – for a theatrical production – those scenes could have done with some fancy footwork to keep the pace and energy up.

When Frederic goes to find the pirates, he’s assailed by the Pirate King and his now-piratical nursemaid, Ruth, who both tell him that he’s still apprenticed to them due to his birthday being on the 29th of February, in a leap year. It’s here where Sheila Ham’s Ruth comes into her own, having changed from dowdy dowager to buxom bar-wench by costume and confidence. She steals every scene she’s in from then on, with her cheeky asides and added comedic flair bringing big laughs from the audience; especially when Ruth, Frederic and the Pirate King are engaged in the song that details Frederic’s woes. It also seems to raise the game of her fellow performers who clearly are having a ball throwing out silly asides and winking at the audience. That particular scene, for me, was a real highlight.

It all wraps up, somewhat incongruously, with a fight between the constabulary and the pirates being halted by the arrival of Queen Victoria – who they pledge allegiance to because they’re all disgraced noblemen and still have the values of the British Empire at heart. It’s a definite ‘of its time’ ending and almost Monty Pythonesque in its execution but you go with it simply because the whole show is so heightened and farcical.

The audience applaud, an encore is duly sung and we’re all let off on shore to regain our land legs. It ends as abruptly as it begins explosively and the audience and cast alike have clearly enjoyed themselves. The music was top-notch, led by conductor and musical director, David Manifold, and the direction by Diana Dodd veers between reverence and irreverence for the original and the Broadway version, striking a happy medium somewhere in-between.

The show ran for a week at the 700-seater Everyman Theatre and this sort of community production is vital to inspire the young and old to tread the boards (or walk the plank) themselves, thus keeping these sort of companies going. There’s clearly still an appetite for Gilbert & Sullivan, as classics never grow old, and this Broadway version proves that a little slap and tickle to the script and the score will enliven the status quo immensely.

You’ll have to excuse me, as I’m just trying to see if I can fit into a pair of tight leggings and whether a moustache and sparkly headband will suit me. No, I’m not John Travolta in ‘Staying Alive’ (the incredibly camp sequel to ‘Saturday Night Fever’). I AM THE PIRATE KING. Oh yes. And it is, it is a glorious thing. As was this production.

Images - Trevtography

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