As a modern adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance, Chris Monks’ version at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, is not without its drawbacks, but, as the evening progresses, the energy, invention and comedic flair of the performance disarm all criticism.
In this version the action shifts to the Yorkshire coast in the present day and the pirates turn into incompetent and soft-hearted mafiosi with cod-American accents. Yet the dialogue stays virtually unchanged and the Pirates are still from Penzance! Why not the Brigands of Bridlington or the Freebooters of Filey?
Equally, the casting of actor-musicians doesn’t quite live up to expectation. Only one trumpet is tooted onstage and, with temporarily unemployed cast members sometimes adding the odd clarinet or violin to Richard Atkinson’s piano, the sound is more Palm Court than Savoy Theatre.
These all prove irrelevant misgivings. For example, Atkinson’s accompaniment is so energetic than it is easy to forget its limitations and the ingenious and frequently very funny movement and choreography (by Beverley Norris-Edmunds) precludes a sax-wielding Sergeant or a fiddling Frederic.
The plot remains as Gilbert wrote it, with Frederic, the piratical apprentice, about to leave the band to pursue a life of virtue on his 21st birthday until his secret paradox is revealed: born on February 29th, he is not 21, but “5 and a little bit over”. Major-General Stanley sets out to crush the pirates and his beautiful daughters confuse and assist while Frederic is prey to conflicting loyalties. Apart from adding mobile phones, abseiling equipment, etc., Chris Monks leaves well alone, until he changes (very amusingly) the final revelation that the pirates are “all noblemen who have gone wrong”.
The central focus of The Pirates of Penzance has often shifted. In the old D’Oyly Carte productions it seemed mainly to be about Major-General Stanley and his innumerable encores, Joseph Papp’s famous New York adaptation pushed Kevin Kline’s dashing Pirate King to the fore. Here it seems to be about the Slave of Duty himself, Frederic. As well as singing superbly, Ian McLarnon finds a winningly dogged innocence that makes the satire on a Victorian stereotype still relevant. Rosie Jenkins’ update of Mabel (bookish, timid, desperately short-sighted) works equally well and she uses an attractive, if rather small, voice intelligently in the showpiece numbers, such as “Poor Wandering One”.
Robert Austin (a plummy Major-General, given a neat update of “I am the very model…”), John Killoran (a mobster from Central Casting as the King) and Pete Gallagher (all booming voice and funny walks as the Police Sergeant) give first-class comic turns, but this is a true ensemble piece, with a mere 11 actors displaying endless versatility. Richard Atkinson gets a good quality of singing from the cast (even Sullivan’s churchy a cappella “Hail, Poetry!” comes over well) and Jan Bee Brown’s designs are strong on comically colourful costumes and monster mobile sandcastles.