The Pirates of Penzance

W S Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan
Carl Rosa Opera
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring

Paul Nicholas as the Pirate King

I suppose it had to happen: the Pirates of Penzance become the Pirates of the Carribean.

OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration but one or two of the pirates in this Carl Rosa version do bear more than a passing resemblance to Johnny Depp. And why not? It adds a little more amusement to Gilbert's already amusing libretto. And during the overture (accompanied by someone in the dress circle audience whistling every tune and being told to shush by a female voice: he didn't!) we see, behind a gauze, Major General Stanley, in what look more like long-johns than a Victorian bathing costume, sunning himself on a deckchair. The sea (a cloth, of course) rises in front of him and a pirate ship sails past as he snoozes. He wakes, steps tentatively into the sea, floats, crawls, back-stokes, breast-strokes and is then chased by the returning ship. Very Gilbertian!

Then, when Ruth tells her story ("When Fred'ric was a little lad"), we are treated to that story being acted out by glove puppets. Not at all Gilbertian, but I'm sure he would have approved.

But these are the only "modern" touches in what is essentially a traditional performance with the costumes, performances and choreography in that traditional mould.

But what else could it be? G&S operettas are very much of their time and any attempt to transplant them to somewhere or sometime more modern is doomed to failure: even though they are no longer preserved in the D'Oily Carte aspic in terms of production, to depart too far from the accepted norm simply wouldn't work.

This is very much a mixed blessing for anyone mounting a new production. There's a strong basis on which to build the show - the audience is very clear about what it expects - but somehow you have to make your production stand out from the crowd. In 2009 Southwark's Union Theatre produced an all-male version (recently revived at Wilton's Music Hall) which had great success and allowed, as BTG reviewer Howard Loxton wrote, "a performance of mid-nineteenth-century femininity that matches Victorian sensibilities to be a coy delight."

Carl Rosa Opera does not go so far. Rather director and designer Peter Mulloy relies upon small touches - as well as these already mentioned, as the policemen relax before going "to glory" one of them knits - and the quality of the performances.

Paul Nicholas leads the cast as the Pirate King, a part he first played in the early eighties in the Joseph Papp version at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and later on a national tour in the early nineties. Now 65, he brings the same charisma and twinkling sense of humour to the role but - at least at the opening night in Newcastle - he uses a microphone, the only member of the cast to do so. In spite of the oddity of hearing one voice through loudspeakers and the rest direct from the stage, his performance quickly wins the audience round.

Rosemary Ashe gives Ruth a feistiness which gives the part a real edge and Rebecca Knight's Mabel has perhaps a little more steel than is usual. Barry Clark eschews any attempt to make the role of the Major General overtly comic and so makes him very funny and Bruce Graham's Sergeant looks almost like a cartoon character with hs rosy cheeks and thick moustache - a delightful character.

Kevin Kyle, who stood in to play the character in the 2005 tour, returns as Frederic, although the part is listed in the programme as being played by Stephen Brown.

It's a thoroughly enjoyable production, very much in the mainstream of Pirates productions but with enough new ideas to keep it fresh. Well worth seeing!

The production runs at the Theatre Royal until 22nd May before moving on the the Hall for Cornwall, Truro, and the Sheffield Lyceum.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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