By Catherine Kirkham-Sandy
“A little nonsense now and then/ is relished by the wisest men.” The proverb actually predates Gilbert and Sullivan, but it sounds like something they had in mind. Like all the best nonsense, The Pirates of Penzance has a lot of intelligence behind it. Anyone with an interest in Victorian Britain, even without an interest in opera, would enjoy two Victorians making fun of their fellow Victorians for the same reasons we make fun of the Victorians. Anyone with an interest in music, even without an interest in Victorian Britain, would enjoy two talented composers parodying history’s talented composers.
The parody is sustained, the music complex. Jacob Taylor was well cast as the prim and proper Frederic, and praise must go to costume, as his too-short waistcoat and trousers perfectly reflected the clothing of someone who has been raised by bumbling pirates. Andreane Rellou displayed impressive technical skill as Mabel, and should be commended for mastering some dizzyingly high notes. Sophie Collerton as Ruth sang with warmth and clarity, Alasdair Stroud as Samuel with particular richness. Both made entertaining comic partners to Frank Davies as the Pirate King, another skilful singer.
Of course, any review of the Pirates of Penzance requires its own review of the song ‘I Am The Very Model of A Modern Major General’, the most famous song in the opera and arguably as parodied as the Victorians Gilbert and Sullivan were themselves parodying. David Charter did a splendid job, hitting the comical notes interspersed with the musical ones. The make-up ageing him was also excellent. Either that or he hasn’t slept for six weeks straight, in which case I owe him an apology. His magnificent moustache alone was worth the long walk to the theatre.
Many of the funniest moments were from the activity of the chorus in the background, such as the Modern Major General’s gallivanting daughters switching with ludicrous speed from gentility to nearly pushing a man off a cliff. They served as an amusing foil to the timid policemen, led by the Sergeant (Alfie Talks). Frederic may have served his apprenticeship with pirates, but the Sergeant seems to have served his with the Ministry of Silly Walks.
The set was well designed, especially the scenery for Act Two. If you are familiar with any of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s previous productions, keep an eye out for the headstones. They add a layer of metatextual humour to Major General Stanley’s line “these are the tombs of my ancestors”. The trees were the perfect height for more background jokes, as when the policemen hide behind them, only their hats can be seen. Even the lighting had good comic timing, with one moment looking strikingly similar to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, in keeping with Gilbert and Sullivan’s style of parodying famous music.
The Pirates of Penzance runs from Thursday 28 February- Saturday 2 March, 19:30 at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre. There is a matinee on Saturday 2 March at 14:30. Going to see it would be a good decision, even a wise one.