The Pirates of Penzance

W S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan,
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

Production photo

Adaptor/Director Chris Monks brought his cricketing version of The Mikado to the Orange Tree for Christmas two years ago and now follows it with a Mafia-influenced Pirates of Penzance.

Monks' best moments tend to come as a result of his quirky comic vision. The gags come thick and fast and ironically, the best are not always intended. The champagne cork that stubbornly defeats two actresses and the woman in the front row who becomes excessively irate at a minor drenching are unscripted gems.

The director did re-write some of the songs for a contemporary audience and Alan McMahon's scuba-diving very model of a modern Major General uses lines that Arthur Sullivan might enjoy but didn't write. The biggest laugh came when the old soldier announced with perfect scansion that "I advise the Pentagon on military strategy". It's time that someone did.

Monks is a detail man so that the set and props, designed by Tim Meacock, are constantly inventive from the Tarentino opening onwards. Seagulls abound in the theatre, the pirates led by Craig Purnell sound like Popeye and the M-G's pretty daughters wittily played by Louisa McCarthy, Catherine Le Brun and Elen Rhys enter with a lovely jolly hockey sticks abseil from the circle. We even get a human sandcastle and beach chair battling the Mafiosi pirates.

The story follows Frederick, the posh English trainee pirate, after he hands in his cutlass to go straight, much to the distress of his colleagues and his long in the tooth girl, Julie Jupp's Ruth.

She tells him that she is a paragon of beauty but on meeting the singing trio and falling for their ugly duckling sister Mabel, he is soon singing the duet "O false one you have deceived me".

The pirates threaten, cajole and trick before Frederick and the girls enlist the assistance of the police who, though their lot may not be a happy one, ensure that the ending is.

The singing is at its best when Stephen Carlile's Frederick and his love Mabel, the sensational Philippa Stanton, are together, though the other daughters are harmonious too. The music is produced by just two people, Musical Director Simon Pickering on the piano and Rachel Steadman on violin, but in the small space, this works well and is never unbalanced.

The idea of restaging Gilbert and Sullivan seems refreshing but is not fully carried through, so that we are left somewhere between the English milieu of some of our pirates and the Chicago of the gangsters, with the two failing to knit as fully as they might have. It is not helped by a staging that appears to have been designed for a proscenium arch theatre without sufficient adaptation to involve all of the spectators seated in the round at the Orange Tree.

Even so, this is a new look at an old work and, though it has less verbal originality than The Mikado, offers enough pleasures to fill The Orange Tree through its seven-week run.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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