Stylish vogue is not what you might expect of Gilbert and Sullivan, those doyens of high Victorian musical melodrama. It was intriguing, then, to see the new production of Pirates of Penzance given by the Cambridge Operatic Society at the Arts Theatre.
The posters give an accurate clue to what is going on here – a very attractive stylized vision of some 1930s art deco lido. The setting has shifted from a remote Cornish cove of the late 19th century to the changing cubicles in a derelict bathing pool during World War II. It is a clever idea, but does it work? Does it enhance the show?
The opening of Pirates has two very strong plus points: a shortened overture (hurrah) provides a spot-on underscore to some grainy old newsreel footage of Land Army girls and seaside frolics of long ago. As the screen rises we catch our first glimpse of these 1940s pirates – a smallish chorus of chaps in tee-shirts and (slightly anachronistically) knee-length bathing costumes. The Pirate King, sonorously sung by Simon Wilson, is in a kind of smoking jacket, and Frederick (Peter Aisher) wears the long jersey swims.
The solos and choruses were well sung throughout the show. Aisher is a muscular young man with a very strong tenor voice and a suitably hang-dog look for a character torn between his insanely held sense of duty (Victorian to its core) and his lovelorn 21 years. The entry of the women’s chorus was a visual treat – Land Army lasses in shorts and working boots and members of the WRAF. They sang very well and, like some of the men’s chorus, remembered that Pirates is meant to tell a story. One of the high spots was the well-choreographed routine where the sisters deliberately sing about the weather as they attempt to eavesdrop on the newly blossoming and much envied romance between Frederick and sister-in-chief Mabel (confidently played by Anna Murgatroyd).
The arrival of the Major General (Lucas Elkin) was a bit underpowered and let whatever dramatic tension had been created dissipate into the rather too solid set, which I felt constrained the flow and movement of what should be a very energetic piece. Pirates is a bit of a warhorse, but one can make it come alive with energy and attack.
The well-conceived set, I felt, held the production back. This was shown all too clearly in what I felt was the weakest part of the show: the antics of the policemen whose lot is not at all a happy one. What made that lot even unhappier, was the odd idea to portray them as blind air raid wardens using a white ribbon to find their way round. The image was, to say the least, baffling and rather unsettling. What should be a real set piece – the policemen’s cowardly reluctance to meet their pirate foes – seemed boxed in and undercooked. Instead of pirates, cutlasses and truncheons, we get feather dusters and tennis rackets as weapons. All a bit of a mystery.
These caveats aside, there is much to enjoy in this production. The small band gave excellent support to some fine singing – there was an especially effective moment as the mixed chorus suddenly launched into it’s a capella hymn to poetry, and there are lots of nice vignettes, especially among the women’s chorus. Though first night nerves meant that much of the show lacked the necessary fire to set G&S alight, this is a show with strong potential despite the odd setting where style and content did not seem in perfect harmony.
Pirates of Penzance is at the Arts Theatre until November 26.