Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park/touring
Opened 29 August, 2001

The motorised miniature whale spouting water at the audience has gone, but otherwise Ian Talbot's acclaimed production of The Pirates Of Penzance returns a year on with pretty much the same staging and design, for a couple of weeks at its home venue in Regent's Park before embarking on a national tour into December.

This is the 1980 centenary revision by Joseph Papp, first seen in his own park venue in New York: the arrangements have been punched up, a number or two interpolated from elsewhere in the Gilbert and Sullivan canon, and Victorian topical satire ditched in favour of tacking across the wind of self-parody. Unlike so many such attempts, though, this version never sets itself above its raw material, remaining affable throughout. Its success may be judged in that even on my relieved return from the wettest, most climatically dismal Edinburgh festival season for years, I was nevertheless perfectly content to sit through the light showers which spat through much of the second act on the press night.

Inevitably, musicals which cannot muster the visual or financial firepower to stand as blockbusters now generally choose to partake of camp in their production values. Talbot's production and Terry Parsons' set are not exactly cheap and cheerful, but they verge on the cartoon, with gaudy pirates and a kind of Metropolitan Keystone Kops squad sporting helmets, truncheons and spats. Indeed, proceedings get openly pantomimic as the audience is corralled into singing along with Sir William Gilbert's "particularly rapid unintelligible patter".

The Pirate King is the kind of role at which Gary Wilmot now casually excels, flinging himself into character and gently taking the mick at the same time, as he repeatedly fumbles his fancy rapier-work and the like. Su Pollard seems to be reining herself in as middle-aged former nursemaid Ruth, but still seems over the top, particularly in her second-act pirate costume in which she basically becomes a panto dame in reverse; David Alder is comfortable as the Major-General whose daughters are the target of the matrimonially inclined brigands. Both Joshua Dallas a the conscientious, reluctantly indentured pirate Frederic and Karen Evans as his beloved Mabel, the General's pushiest daughter, give energetic readings, but both (and in particular Evans) inadvertently highlight the ludicrousness of performing this kind of music in a modern stage-musical back-of-the-nose singing voice.

This is perfect Park fare; I have my suspicions as to whether it might seem more awkwardly contrived in venues such as Glasgow's Theatre Royal or the De Montfort Hall in Leicester, but Talbot's production is gifted at getting even its more reluctant spectators to enjoy themselves.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2001

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage