The Pirates of Penzance

Arthur Sullivan (music) and Will Gilbert (libretto)
The Scottish Opera and D'Oyly Carte
Opera House, Manchester

The Pirates of Penzance from Scottish Opera and D'Oyly Carte Opera Company Credit: KK Dundas
The Pirates of Penzance from Scottish Opera and D'Oyly Carte Opera Company Credit: KK Dundas

Young Frederic celebrates having completed his pirate apprenticeship by telling his former shipmates that he despises their trade and will, no malice intended, now seek to bring them all to justice. The pirates, disappointed, though surprisingly understanding of Frederic’s sense of duty, set him down on the Cornish coast.

His nurse, Ruth, whose hearing difficulty caused him to be indentured to a pirate in the first place (it should have been a ‘pilot’), now wishes to marry him, playing off the small problem that she is forty-seven against the fact that she is, thus far, the only woman he has ever seen. Sadly for Ruth, Frederic soon espies the thirteen lovely daughters of Major-General Stanley and, in the twinkling of an eye, he and one of the daughters, Mabel, are in love.

Naturally, trials and tribulations stand on the way of true love: pirates can arrive at the most awkward of moments; even the aspiring groom's age can prove a problem, due to a ‘most unusual paradox’ linked to having been born on 29th February. Will all end well? Trust in Queen Victoria and the love we British have for the nobility...

The Savoy operas of Gilbert and Sullivan might be as close as we get to ‘musical Marmite’—beloved by some, the very thought of them is enough to churn the stomach of others. If you are or ever will be among the G&S gluttons of the world, this co-production by Scottish Opera and D’Oyly Carte will be as a feast to a starving woman or man.

The Pirates of Penzance can lay strong claim to being the most successful coming together of Sullivan’s music with Gilbert’s words. Much of the music is familiar beyond the confines of aficionados, and the ‘patter song’ given to Major-General Stanley surely now ranks among the most recognisable pieces in the world.

The problem, then, for any revival will be how to breathe new life into the piece. Martin Lloyd-Evans seems, wisely, to have told his cast ‘this is comedy—milk it for all you can get’. With the able collaboration of Steve Elias’s choreography (evident from the opening scene with the pirates’ synchronised pitching and reeling in the sea swell—think the early days of Star Trek whenever the Enterprise was under attack) we know from the off that the cast will be working hard to get the best of this, surprisingly subversive, classic.

Designer Jamie Vartan enters into the spirit even before the curtain goes up on the pirate ship—a rather dodgy-looking seagull on a wire, “flying” towards a bird’s-eye view of a map of Cornwall. Several of the sets look like giant origami—stylish, unfussy—and scenery changes are accomplished smoothly and with wit.

Nicholas Sharratt sings Frederic lightly and winningly, whilst Rebecca Bottone charms from the off as a coy, excitable but ultimately resolute Mabel. Graeme Broadbent plays to the crowd with an amalgam of several Monty Python characters all rolled into his Sergeant of Police, whilst the vocal performance of the night is surely Andrew McTaggart’s Samuel, Lieutenant to Steven Page’s able Pirate King.

The ensemble are never to be caught just standing around, with comical and inventive moments to be found wherever one looks—pay particular attention to the chapel scene which opens act two (thirteen daughters, as you might suspect, can make even a baronial hall more than a little crowded).

The assembled masses seemed to have a most enjoyable evening. So did I. What next, I wonder? Marmite on my toast?

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson