Before going any further with this review, I have to admit now that this is my first venture into the world of Gilbert & Sullivan on stage. Some of the songs from Pirates of Penzance I was familiar with, such as "A Policeman's Lot is Not a Happy One" and "I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General". When I told people I was going to see a Gilbert & Sullivan show I got some very mixed reactions. Like it or not folks, but the G & S works were hugely popular in their day and continue to be hugely popular over 100 years later. Many of us will have heard and be familiar with at least one or two songs from their large output of work.
This story pretty much revolves around a mis-understanding. Frederic (Michael McFarlane) has been apprenticed in error to The Pirate King (Scott Thomson) to be a pirate. As a young boy his nurse Ruth (Susanne Horsburgh) was instructed to take him to be apprenticed as a ship's Pilot, but mis-heard the instruction. The mistake was quickly realised but with a strong sense of duty Frederic stayed as a Pirate until his release from his contract at 21 years old. Unfortunately for Frederic the contract is actually until his 21st birthday and he was born on the 29th of February in a leap year and does not actually have his 21st birthday for another 63 years.
Along the way of course we meet Major-GeneralStanley (Ian Lawson), his many daughters and of course Mabel whom Frederic is in love with (Gillian Robertson), Edith (Annabel Hamid), Kate (Sarah Kim), Isabel (Rachel Allan) and Ruth . We also meet Samuel, the Lieutenant (Gordon Christie) and the bumbling sergeant of police (Andrew Crawford)
Pirates of Penzance is a comic opera and EDGAS present a really good show. Good stage sets, lighting, costumes and of course singing. It is obvious that everyone on stage tonight is there for only one reason and that is that they love performing the works of Gilbert & Sullivan. That joy in their performance comes over to an audience who for the most seem to be just as enthusiastic as them.
I have to admit that I found my trip into the G & S world a bit surreal at times - almost like stepping into an alternative reality. This is a piece of work preserved in the time of its makers (a few gentle little on-stage sight gag updates too though). Pirates is very much a 19th century piece of work full of references that probably meant much more to the original audience. It is a clever piece of work with parodies of older operas in parts and an almost vaudeville style to its humour. The humour is to me very much like a later Monty Python show (perhaps they took some influences from it). The pirates are of course hopelessly soft hearted and useless at their chosen profession and the bumbling policemen in Act II are just as inept. The visual gags of the policemen did go on a little too long for my liking though.
Everything said though, EDGAS put on a show as good as many a professional stage production that I have seen. It has to be remembered that most of the principals on stage (and many of the cast) hold down full time jobs. There are some very good vocals on stage tonight, and it is nice to see that a singer like Gillian Robertson (Mabel) is expanding that wonderful soprano voice into Mozart works.
Ian Lawson (Major-General Stanley) somehow remembers all the words to his song and it is a wonderful example of how G & S play with words. I note from the brochure just how long Ian has been immersed in the world of G & S and how many parts he has played over the years. It does seem for many that once you enter this world you stay in it forever. These works are very British and very of their time. They are still massively popular and somewhere in the world on any given day G & S works are being performed.
It was to me also interesting to note that this work was premiered in New York to try and protect G & S from copyright piracy (as had happened with H.M.S. Pinafore). Overseas works had no copyright protection in the USA at this time. I find this odd now as nowadays, no country is more obsessed with copyright protection of their own works than the USA.
Perhaps the enduring nature of G & S works is that they can be performed by everyone from small informal groups to large professional companies. Something about the works fit themselves into that imagined world we all have of large Victorian homes where people could dress up and play the parts themselves.
Review by Tom King