Unlike most of Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Savoy operas', The Pirates of Penzance wasn't actually premiered at the Savoy but at the Royal Bijou Theatre in Paignton, Devon, for one performance only on the night before its New York premiere on New Year's Eve in 1879! That was done in order to establish the show's copyright on both sides of the Atlantic and - ironically given the subject matter - to prevent it from being pirated.
So for Steven Dexter's revival at the G&S's natural home, he also returns the show to its original place of birth by setting it in Paignton, where it's being performed as a show-within-a-show on what must pass for Paignton pier. On Francis O'Connor's rudimentary set design mostly comprises blow-ups of Victorian-style postcards that are themed around the show, Dexter's framing device of staging the show as a musical vaudeville is soon made clear.
Thus, a postcard that announces "General Stanley's Daughters" and advertises them as a "living tableau of virgin beauties" and invites the audience to "pluck one of England's finest roses", tells us that they're the burlesque turn. Meanwhile, a postcode of General Stanley's haunted house sets the tone for the novelty number, complete with flying ghosts.
The ghosts are partly a hold-over from the production that The Pirates of Penzance is appearing in repertoire here with: for no good reason other than the flying kit is already here for Peter Pan, Anthony Head's Pirate King also takes to the air for his first big number. At least he doesn't fly into the scenery, as the poor actress playing Wendy did in Peter Pan on the press night; but then it's difficult this time, because there isn't much to fly into.
One possible explanation for this lack of scenic distraction occurred to me as I was watching it: so enjoyably over-the-top is Mr Head that maybe he had already chewed it all to bits and spat it out. Or less charitably, maybe the budget just didn't stretch to having any. But I couldn't think of any similarly convincing reason for why these two shows are paired together, either, except that they both feature pirates, and it saved money on costumes.
But next to the sinister ambitions of the Peter Pan pirates, these are a wet and feeble bunch: they won't attack anyone weaker than themselves, or anyone who's an orphan. And, of course, they are above all loyal to their Queen. But the variously deft and daft social satire of WS Gilbert's libretto is more or less lost in Dexter's unfailingly boisterous, but never subtle, production.
Arthur Sullivan's delightful musical ditties are similarly erratically served. A threadbare, undernourished eight-piece orchestra turns much of the playing into electronic mulch. And the shrillness of some of the vocal tones may have been down to the unsubtle amplification, unsubtle singing, or both.
There are a few redeeming features. Kathryn Evans outclasses everyone on stage as Ruth - though I did wonder why young Frederic (a dashing enough Jack Blumenau) could even contemplate turning her down in favour of the simpering, plain Mabel of Elin Wyn Lewis. There's also good comic value from Jack Chissick's Major-General, and David Burt's Sergeant of Police.
- Mark Shenton