SULLIVAN & GILBERT The Pirates of Penzance The New Shakespeare Company, Open Air Theatre Regent's Park, London 31 July 00.
Hard on the heels of Yeomen of the Guard, which S&H enjoyed in a traditional performance with Holland House serving for the Tower of London, comes The Pirates of Penzance (or the Slave of Duty) in a sharp and hilarious presentation in Regent's Park by the Open Air Theatre, luxuriating in the (interim) improvements resulting from its lottery grant. Fine weather blessed both visits.
The Pirates (1879, first given in Paignton) was revived in Joseph Papp's version from New York, remembered with delight from the 1980s at Drury Lane Theatre in London, where it made a decisive, if controversial, break with the stultifying, fossilised tradition of the D'Oyly Carte Company, which had been fighting an increasingly unsuccessful rear-guard action to preserve Victorian standards, and losing audiences and better performers thereby. Papp helped to spearhead a revival of G&S which has gathered momentum - his version was made into a film but sadly no CD is in the catalogue.
Apart from some small injections of other material, Papp's version had the virtue of leaving the original text largely intact, extremely dated and often incomprehensible though much of it must have been in New York, and the topical and local allusions already forgotten in Britain. The dialogue is now a period delight, especially when given with the precision of Gay Soper as a Scots Ruth. Most important of Papp's innovations was the scoring by William Elliott for a synthesiser based band of eight players, with woodwind reeds (players doubling flutes, saxs etc), trombone & tuba, bass & percussion. This was then and is now a sheer delight in its wit and affectionate glosses on Sullivan's marvellous tunes. Hearing it again now, one is struck by how innovative it was twenty years ago, but the underlying strength of Sullivan's craftmanship is such that the music of the Savoy operas holds its own easily, whether played straight at Holland Park, or as here under the direction of Catherine Jayes.
Ian Talbot's production was relentless in its invention and energy, relished by the young, versatile modern day actors of the New Shakespeare Company, cast from strength, with Mark Umbers as the 'paradoxical' hero, only five-and-a-quarter because born on leap-year day. They can sing (Lucy Quick's stratospheric coloratura as Mabel especially notable), dance (Stephen Matthews' terpsichorean Police Sergeant particularly endearing), nonchalantly throw in gymnastic feats (Jimmy Johnston's breath-taking backward somersaults as the Pirate King), and all of them act with a will - Paul Bradley, the trampolining, guilt-ridden Major-General here, plays Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream! There are mad chases through the audience, model ships and creatures of the deep which spray the front rows with water to everyone else's delight, and a pause for competitive audience performance of a patter song.
Finally, two things which cap this production's triumph; firstly, superb state-of-the-art amplification, presumably using radio mics, making for absolute, distortion free audibility of every Gilbertian word, and secondly, Sullivan's music, well set to survive and thrive in this next-but-one century after its creation, coming up fresh as paint in two London parks.
Peter Grahame Woolf
The Pirates of Penzance is in repertoire with A Midsummer Night's Dream and Much Ado about Nothing until September. It returns on 17 August, with matinees on Thursday 17 & 19. Check times and ticket availability with www.open-air-theatre.org.uk
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