The Pirates of Penzance

W S Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan
Ocean Theatre Company
On board the Golden Hinde

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Holding a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance on the deck of a ship in volatile British weather is either a stroke of genius or an act of folly. At one point during last night's performance when the rain came down, it seemed to lean towards the latter. But Andrew Miller (who founded The Ocean Theatre Company in Brisbane in 1996), is not the sort of director without a Plan B, so we were all summoned below deck like hostages to fortune until the rain had died down.

If anything, this brief sojourn in the added to the atmosphere and didn't spoil the performance or fun everyone was having. Consistent with their characters, the chorus of pirates seemed a thoroughly hardy lot and sang with even more gusto.

First performed for one night only in 1879 in Paignton, the operetta is now one of the most popular and best known of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Its themes of honour, duty and love combined with comic frivolity have allowed it to stand the test of time very well. The music is excellent (here under the direction of Peter White) with songs such as "I am the very model of a modern Major-General" and "When the felon's not engaged in his employment" benefit from being so familiar that the audience are waiting anxiously for them to be sung.

And so to the unashamedly improbable plot. Frederic (Alex Weatherill) by an implausible accident has been apprenticed to a group of hopeless pirates. He tells his boss the Pirate King (Luke Tudball) that he plans to leave his employ on his twenty-first birthday, which happens to be today. Not only that, he also plans to shop his former colleagues to the police.

Ironically, Frederic is the only passable pirate among them. The others are too soft-hearted to be successful - vulnerable to any old sob-story, particularly from orphans; even when the orphan in question comes in the large shape of a Major-General (Garry Bailey) whose daughters the pirates want to marry. Stung into action, the Pirate King finds a loophole which will keep Frederic on their side. Because he was born in a leap year on the 29th February, he will not celebrate his 21st birthday until 1940 and therefore cannot break his apprenticeship until then. But this is a comedy after all and the play cannot end on anything so downbeat. Suffice it to say, Frederic wins the daughter he desires, saves a few souls and does the right thing in the end for Queen and country.

The ship does not allow much room for movement once the audience is on board, so Miller made a virtue out of this, by forcing the pirates and, later, the daughters to mingle and interact with the audience. He also used every inch of the ship with various members of the cast popping up from all sorts of unusual places.

The first act is played entirely outdoors on the top deck (everyone moves downstairs for Act Two). Apart from the weather there are other hazards and initially the cast have to compete against the noisy wine-bar culture on the docks. Some of the cast with less strong voices had trouble straining against this, most notably in the opening scenes. However, the entrance of the four Daughters (Sarah Applewood, Laura Cotton, Helen McBriarty and Angharad Walter) lifted proceedings both vocally and visually - they all engaged well with the audience at close range and without embarrassment.

Alex Weatherill's comic timing and clear voice made him an effective lead. He was both an enthusiastic pirate, and believably naïve about the possibilities of romance. His duet "Stay, Fred'ric, stay" with his love interest Mabel (Emma Clare) was sad and compelling. Emma Clare has a good soprano voice, well suited to musical theatre. Garry Bailey as the Major-General gave a performance that had shades of Tory MP Boris Johnson but that's no bad model for the bumbling Major-General.

The Pirates of Penzance has been performed in the open air before, most notably in Regent's Park in 2001. However, this production takes us one step closer to reality. My companion went so far as to suggest there was a market to be had in hiring a boat and taking the production round the world in it. Whether or not that's feasible, it makes a rollickingly good swashbuckler of an evening.

Running until 3rd September

Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart

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