They’re back, as the ads say, and indeed the Jon English/Simon Gallaher version of the Gilbert & Sullivan chestnut The Pirates of Penzance is a cheerful addition to the pre-Christmas line-up. The addition of Gerry Connolly and the Ten Tenors make it worth another visit.
It is pleasing for those of us who are devotees of G&S (even in their original form!) that the Essgee production retains most of Gilbert’s brilliant script. Gilbert’s clever satires of late-Victorian institutions provide a satisfying underlay to the farcical plots. Pirates is an elaborate spoof on the prevailing code of honour of the very pukka British army, where young subalterns were schooled into embracing the values of chivalry, duty and unthinking obedience. (The subtitle of the operetta is “The Slave of Duty”.) Even the pirates are committed to this code, with their refusal to engage with weaker parties or to harm orphans. Indeed, the valour and code of honour of the young officers (including the nobly-born pirates) is contrasted with the perfidy and cowardice of the major-general, suggesting a layer of upper-level corruption in control of the honourable if naive men who served as junior officers. (A generation later, this was the class of men to be sacrificed in the trenches of Europe.)
But few will be detained by such meditations in the midst of the uproarious fun that is the English/Gallaher Pirates. Both the principals hold their own very well. English is as entertaining as ever with his set-piece chest displays and constant cutting of his hands with his own sword. He’s a little less agile than in the past and his exhaustion after the many “Catlike Tread” encores didn’t need much acting. Gallaher has actually improved over time in the role of Frederick, with confident singing including a remarkable sostenuto.
Gerry Connolly is an absolute treat. While amusing enough as the Major-General, who would have expected cameo appearances in the two roles for which he is best known: the Queen and Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen? Her Majesty makes a surprise entry at the beginning to remind us of the long association between queens and the performing arts, while the Major-General morphs into Joh and gives us a tirade in the old tradition. It’s brilliant comedy which makes one nostalgic for ’80s Queensland and the political comedy the era generated.
Those who still cherish memories of the contortionist gymnastics of india rubber man Tim Tyler may be disappointed at the switch to a more traditional singing role for the Sergeant of Police, but David Gould’s basso profundo is a delight, as are his own comedy capers. Sheila Bradley is a very appropriate Ruth, trying to win Frederick’s heart through deceit about the significance of their age disparity, while Carmell Parente is a charming Mabel, although a little uncomfortable with some of the vocal challenges.
It was a stroke of genius to involve the Ten Tenors. While perhaps some of the choreography and fight scenes are less exciting than we’ve seen before, the quality of their singing is superb, with nice harmonic work from their very first appearance. And the Tenors do put on a splendid show as ragamuffin foils to English’s crazed Pirate King.
For me the use of a brassy, beehive-coiffed trio (previously the Singlettes, now the Fabulettes) to substitute for Major Stanley’s bevy of beautiful daughters was always the least successful part of the Essgee production. Not only do we lose the visual appeal of a stage full of giggling, parasol-wielding young things daring to expose their ankles in order to paddle in the Cornish waters, but against the Ten Tenors the ladies, despite their valiant efforts, are rather overwhelmed vocally, especially in such set piece numbers as “Hail Poetry”.
There is some interpolated music which generally adds little, but all the big Pirates numbers are there and are performed with the level of energy one would expect. The small orchestra of keyboards plus percussion thump out good musical support (with a rogue trombone in there for one significant flatulent moment involving Connolly), and together with their conductor Kevin Hocking they add to the entertainment with their musical and physical interactions with the pirates. Back in ’94 the auditory overload was actually quite painful to the ears, but this time the sound balance is just right.