Though comprehensively recast since last year, Ian Talbot's Olivier Award-nominated direction remains a comic, colourful delight, investing Gilbert and Sullivan's rollicking romantic high seas operetta with a freshness and vitality that at once honours most of the original text and music but also brings it to joyful contemporary life.
Next to the fustiness of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company version that came to the Savoy Theatre earlier in the year and combined the twin dreads of deadly reverence and enforced jollity, it's refreshing to be reminded once again how truly inspired this version is.
Originally created for the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park in 1980, in a production which subsequently transferred to Broadway and came here to Drury Lane (where Tim Curry starred as the Pirate King), it is for some reason always called the Joe Papp version, even though the late, great founder of the Public Theatre there was merely its producer, not its adaptor (William Elliott) or original director (Wilford Leach).
But whoever takes the credit, the wit as well as wisdom of this version is that it keeps Gilbert and Sullivan largely intact (though purists will point out the transpositions of verses that took place, and a song from HMS Pinafore that has been interpolated), but gives it a Broadway sensibility in terms of its musical arrangements and references. Unlike the current West End Gondoliers, which virtually creates an entirely new show from its G&S original, this is both recognisable but also properly realised.
And in Talbot's invigorating and inventive staging, enchantingly designed by Terry Parsons and wittily choreographed by Gillian Gregory, he has fielded two popular telly names, Gary Wilmot as the Pirate King and Su Pollard in the comparatively minor but important role of Ruth, who also give both recognisable but properly realised performances. Both of them alumni of the London production of Me and My Girl at different points during that show's long run, these are actors of comedy and charm, but just as importantly, they can sing, too. In a strong ensemble, Joshua Dallas cuts a dashing Frederic, and Karen Evans a sweet-voiced Mabel.
The whole thing may be as corny as Kansas in August, but I'm in love with this wonderful show.
Note: The following review dates from July 2001 and this production's original Open Air run.
An evening spent at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park is never short of enchantment, but an evening spent at the Open Air Theatre watching this new production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance has an absolute abundance of the stuff – as well as fun and humour and pure, unadulterated entertainment.
The story is a quaint ditty about duty, loyalty and class. Upon reaching 21 years, Frederic finishes his apprenticeship with a band of lovable pirates and intends to atone for his miserable youth by finding a wife and stamping out the pirate scourge altogether. When he's taken in by his lady-love Mabel, her sisters and their father, the Major-General, all seems to be going pretty much to plan. But just as Frederic's about to launch an attack with the backing of the local constabulary, the pirates return and reveal the implications of being a leap year baby. The inevitable "hilarious consequences" quickly follow.
A huge portrait of Queen Victoria hoisted above Terry Parsons brightly coloured stage reminds you – as if there were any chance of forgetting – of the imperial era in which the play is set. The point is an important one. Director Ian Talbot has chosen Joseph Papp's 1980 centenary version of Pirates for this production. In its day, the show caused waves amongst G&S die-hards for its liberties, but ironically, what seems so refreshing about this production is its undeniable affection for tradition. There are no flash special effects, no aging boyband pop stars, no merchandising tie-ins.
What we re presented with instead is a talented cast that performs with such energy, zest and respect for the material that you can imagine they d get the Victorians themselves leaping to their feet in enthusiastic applause. Mark Umbers as a dishy Frederic and Lucy Quick as Mabel take virtuousness to delightfully cringe-worthy extremes, and the supporting ensemble, including Gay Soper as the lascivious nurse-maid Ruth and Paul Bradley as the Major-General, all make the most of their moments in the spotlight.
But cast-wise, the evening's scene-stealing awards must fall to Jimmy Johnston and Stephen Matthews. Johnston is at his acrobatic and charismatic best as the pirate king, while Matthews camps it up in hilarious Hugh Laurie-like style as the bumbling police sergeant.
Gilbert & Sullivan's rapid-fire, pitter-patter songs – including "Poor Wandering One", "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" – have lost none of their charm either. An Act II sing-along prompts renewed admiration for both the intricacy of the lyrics and the vocal demands they make of the cast.
Without a doubt, The Pirates of Penzance is the Open Air's best musical in years – an evening of relentless good-natured, old-fashioned fun. Just try to stop yourself from grinning from start to finish. Hurrah!