Review: The Pirates of Penzance (London Coliseum)

Mike Leigh’s reverential production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera returns

Ashley Riches as the Pirate King,  David Webb as Frederic and Lucy Schaufer as Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance (ENO)
Ashley Riches as the Pirate King, David Webb as Frederic and Lucy Schaufer as Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance (ENO)
© Thomas Bowles

Love letters are all very well but they do rather exclude the casual reader, which is why Mike Leigh's hymn to Gilbert and Sullivan has such a low theatrical voltage. Sure, the audience laughs along, but at the genius of the raw material rather than any wit in the production. Leigh pushes reverence to the fringes of inertia.

I wrote much the same two years ago when this production first opened. The Pirates of Penzance earns an extra star this time, though, because aspects of it are better than before and where it's not better it's no worse.

The new cast members seem more consistently at home with the idiom than their predecessors, their artistry that little bit more acute, their comic instincts more sharply honed. Was this because Mike Leigh's absence from rehearsals meant that revival director Sarah Tipple could spread her wings, or did the brief rehearsal period mean that seasoned performers felt free to busk it? I couldn't say.

The venerable John Tomlinson has fun as the Sergeant of Police and, now into his 70s, was probably relieved to discover the lamentable poverty of his officers' dance routines. And Lucy Schaufer brings a welcome touch of sassiness to plain old Ruth, her splendid mezzo subtly leavened by musical theatre inflections and some sweet timing in her dialogue. Andrew Shore returns as the Major-General, looking for all the world like Laurence Olivier as King Lear, and after (on opening night) a disappointingly matter-of-fact run at his patter song he slots comfortably back into his audience-winning ways.

All the young'uns do well and overcome the antiseptic lines of Alison Chitty's geometry-box set. Ashley Riches booms and blusters as the over-sensitive Pirate King, Katie Coventry and Angharad Lyddon shine as Edith and Kate, while David Webb's puppy-dog Frederic and Soraya Mafi's irresistible Mabel hold the show together with their starry-eyed romance. They sing like love's young dream.

And yet… Why doesn't Leigh want his audiences to fall off their chairs with laughter? What is it about contemporary reinventions of G&S that irks him so? From Joseph Papp to Sasha Regan, clever creatives (or re-creatives) have made this score dance before our eyes in interpretations of unashamed hilarity. Leigh gives a sense that we may, if we must, chuckle at Gilbert's libretto, but woe betide any player who dares to riff on it. The singers' default stance is park-'n'-bark; the choreography is one long missed opportunity.

Last week it was distressing to hear the ENO Orchestra, one of the company's glories, sound so badly vitiated when Rigoletto opened. Here, happily, it is restored to health under the experienced baton of Welsh conductor Gareth Jones, who's an excellent signing. The ENO Chorus has a field day too, the men as pirates and policemen, the women as Major-General Stanley's improbably populous progeny.

If you enjoy the music of Gilbert and Sullivan you'll probably adore this rapturously sung revival of The Pirates of Penzance. If it's theatrical zaniness you're after, expect to be disappointed.

The Pirates of Penzance continues in repertory at the London Coliseum until 4 March.