Having tackled H.M.S Pinafore and The Mikado, Charles Court Opera turn to the third in the trio of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular works: The Pirates of Penzance.
It may have debuted in 1879, with a plot-line that turns on the most absurd of threads, but it remains a delight when done well and this production is done superbly well: the singing is faultless and of the highest standard, while both acting and directing are perfectly pitched.
Our hero Frederic is a handsome chap whose nurse mistakenly apprentices him off to pirates. The farcical gallivanting continues with Frederic unable to take his liberty at the age of 21 as agreed, because it turns out he is born on a leap day and will therefore not come of age for another 63 years; when Frederic becomes enamoured with a beautiful maiden, he is torn between his heart’s desire and his duty to stay indentured to the pirates.
The tiny stage at the King’s Head lends itself perfectly to this kind of production, gifting the audience a wonderful sense of intimacy. The action takes place against the simple backdrop of a child’s nursery, sparsely populated with a bed, toy box, chest of drawers and rocking horse. This air of Victoriana is enhanced by the Eaton-Young Piano Duo, who expertly carry the show on a score they have arranged and adapted for four-handed piano, which is delivered with verve and empathetic delicacy.
The production has a wonderful, playful physicality, with moments of real visual inspiration. ‘Stay, we must not lose our senses /Here’s a first-rate opportunity to get married with impunity’ is delivered with the three sisters flung over the three pirates shoulders, petticoats and bloomers on display, legs kicking throughout. When the cast sing ‘Go to death, and go to slaughter. Die…’ they stand on the child’s bed, spelling out the fatal words on toy blocks in a carefully choreographed routine. This thoughtfulness is continued throughout with many such enjoyable visual devices and some marvellously OTT costumes.
The casting is also inspired. Charlotte Baptie and Nichola Jolley are revoltingly brilliant as Kate and Edith, recalling Austen’s Steele sisters. Ian Jervis makes a lovable modern-Major-General, clutching a teddy bear as he mourns the loss of his three daughters and somehow managing to be arch and affecting at the same time. Kevin Kyle is winsome and charming as Frederic, with a voice as sweet as his puppyish enthusiastic face, Matthew Kellett is a mischievous and impish pirate, with yet another lovely singing voice, while John Savournin, the leader of the Pirates and the company, is simply transfixing, his every facial expression perfectly judged. Though a small part, Simon Masterton-Smith is perfect as the policeman of all policemen: soft, rosy and bumbling, an Enid Blyton character come to life.
Alexandra Hutton, as Mabel, had some tricky moments to tackle vocally, as some sections of the score are almost unbearably high-pitched, but she turned these challenges to her advantage and positively revelled in hitting these scandalously high notes with ease, much to the audience’s delight. The one tiny gripe would be that while Amy J Payne has a lovely warm contralto, her facial twitching – meant to convey an ageing Ruth – becomes very irritating very quickly.
But this is a minor wrinkle in what is a brilliantly enjoyable romp. The skilled cast have a lot of fun with the material, attacking everything with gusto and hamming it up to the max, with just the right amount of tongue in cheek. It’s all done with such obvious love for, and knowledge of, G&S, without a whiff of cynicism. This reverent irreverence is a real rarity and a total joy.