This is the first revival of Mike Leigh’s production of The Pirates of Penzance, with a largely new cast – other than Andrew Shore’s Major-General Stanley and Angharad Lyddon’s Kate. Soraya Mafi, who sang Edith in the original cast has been promoted, to Mabel, and worthily so!
Leigh’s staging in Alison Chitty’s elegant, colourful, adaptable and simple designs is true to W. S. Gilbert’s original concept, and plays it pretty straight. Indeed, avoidance of ‘knowing’ acting is one of the strengths and allows the humour and gentle satire to work a treat. So, no modernist amendments to the text, but plenty of witty business and choreography as well as vibrant costumes.
Gareth Jones and ENO’s Orchestra were on fine fettle; nice lean sound and real lilt to Sullivan’s delightful music and detailed attention to his scoring; his great ability to write wonderful tunes for various characters and to then set them in counterpoint for the big finales was brought to vivid attention.
Given the cast has voices generally on the light side for an auditorium of this size, Jones’s accompaniment is not only voice-friendly but also diction-friendly too – vital. The ‘big’ voices are John Tomlinson’s authoritative Sergeant and Shore’s wily class-conscious Major-General. Both are fabulous singing actors and made as much as possible through canny inflection of words in song and speech.
Tomlinson’s Sergeant is dour, admirably supported by the basses of the Chorus who enhance the comedy of timid policemen superbly – some real laugh-out-loud moments there. Shore’s patter song was indeed a “model” of its kind – every word loaded and with a fun sense of competition with the orchestra in terms of tempo. Ashley Riches was having a whale of a time as the Pirate-King – channelling his inner Johnny Depp/Jack Sparrow to great effect in terms of swagger, and staying just the right side of camp. Good interplay with Lucy Schaufer’s “mummerset” Ruth too – both making the most of Gilbert’s rather unpleasant gags at the expense of elderly spinsters of undeterminable age.
In terms of acting David Webb’s blank innocence of the duty- and honour-bound Frederic is classic comedy. His every facial expression was a masterpiece of bewilderment and anxiety and he fed the gag lines of others wonderfully. His voice, although heady and pliant, lacked a bit of power at the top. Soraya Mafi’s almost nymphomaniac Mabel is a brilliant foil – and she dazzled in Sullivan’s dig at the coloratura arias of Italian opera in ‘Poor wandering one’, as well as evoking a perfect juxtaposition of pathos and stiff-upper-lip resolve in ‘Ah leave me not to pine’.
As befits Gilbert’s humour it was not clear whether the pirates or Stanley’s army of daughters was the more terrifying. True, G&S operettas can seem as an encapsulation of a specific era, but when handled with respect and love they yield great dividends for those wishing for some silliness as a tonic to ‘real life’. Fun for all.