Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Opened 22 December, 2006

I do wonder where on earth Chris Monks gets the ideas for his radical adaptations of classic light operas. Two years ago the Orange Tree invited him to revive his version of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado, set in a local cricket club, and this is now followed by his take on The Pirates Of Penzance, in which... well, if I mention that two of the brigands here are known as Mr Turquoise and Mr Lime, you can infer both the Tarantinesque look of the crew and that they are no more successful as mobsters than G&S's tender-hearted plunderers normally are. Young Frederic's graduation from his apprenticeship is marked by the ceremonial presentation of his very own shades and shooter, before he disavows both their company and Julie Jupp's mutton-dressed-in-leopard-print nurse.

In contrast, the daughters of Major-General Stanley are first seen in sturdy trainers and Lycra, Outward Bound-ly abseiling down from the theatre's gallery... except for Philippa Stanton's bookish Mabel, who is every inch the repressed but secretly torrid librarian type; it is inevitable that during their big Act Two duet, Frederic (Stephen Carlile) will tenderly remove Mabel's spectacles, and equally inevitable that she will then be unable to see him as she implores him to stay. The Major-General himself makes his first entrance in wetsuit and flippers; the more or less mandatory rewrite of his self-congratulatory number ("I am the very model...") includes references to "High Court judges and their sexual proclivities" and, in a not very topical example, the films rather than the politics of Arnie [sic] Schwarzenegger.

When reviewing Monks' Mikado, I opined that it was terribly inventively staged but never remotely explored the reasons for being reimagined in this way. The same is true here, although on this occasion the latter point bothers me far less. Monks uses the whole of the theatre space, and strikes some notes that are both topical – turning the police into privatised security guards – and absurd – disguising a pair of them as a sandcastle and a Li-Lo respectively. Best of all, only one of the cast of eleven mistakenly uses the "head-voice" of contemporary music theatre when singing operetta. The most enjoyable alternative Christmas offering I have seen this year.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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