After their successful production of the Mikado earlier this year, the St Andrews Gilbert and Sullivan Society was back again with a hilarious and lively production of Pirates of Penzance. As someone who is admittedly new to Gilbert and Sullivan, I was very charmed by the antique wit and the satire on Victorian society, which, even after one and a half centuries, is still uproarious. The story invites questions about the importance of duty and respectability, symbolised by the prim and well-spoken character of the Major General. The Pirate King, on the other hand, when asked about his own beliefs on ‘respectability,’ responds, “I don’t think much of our profession, but contrasted with respectability, it is comparatively honest.” Pirates of Penzance plays with the ironies of Victorian values to magnificent comic effect, and this production is no different; it brings to life—through the energetic performances and lively music—all of the opera’s wit, laughter, and meaning.
The musicians played excellently on the whole. There were definitely a few hiccups during the overture, and I felt that part could have been better rehearsed, but throughout the performance, the musicians kept their poise and interacted seamlessly with the singing and acting. The music lent good emphasis to the punch lines of the jokes and thereby added to the comedy, and it set the proper pace for the action on stage—especially during rapid tunes such as “The Major General’s Song” or “Paradox.” There were only one or two times when a performer sung too quietly to be understood under the sound of the instruments; for basically the entire opera, the musicians kept in great harmony and unison with the stage performers.
The singing itself also left little to be desired. Both the choruses and the soloists did a fine job all around. Really worth mentioning is Emilia Wright (Mabel) who seemed to move easily across a range of impressively sustained and high soprano notes. Even during the longest and most drawn out of these measures, she was still able to fill her facial expression with emotion and contribute to her character’s innocence and elatedness. Another actor whose singing really took it away was Freddy Mack as the Major General, who definitely nailed one of the most iconic songs of the opera, the so-called “Major General’s Song.” Mack smoothly expressed the character’s aura of exaggerated respectability and gentility and was really a master of one of the opera’s most comic and satirical characters.
Alice Gold, who played Ruth, the pirates’ maid, gave perhaps the most immediately funny of all the performances. Ruth definitely seemed to be one of the opera’s more pitiful characters, and Gold played that out well with the well-crafted clumsiness of her stage movement. Dr. Ian Bradley also garnered a lot of laughter acting out the humorous and sporadic shifts between the Police Sergeant’s bravery and cowardice. Finally, I must mention the great job done by Peter Cushley (Frederic), both in his role as the protagonist and as the artistic director. The action and movement throughout the play progressed seamlessly and smoothly, and I attribute this both to Cushley and the choreography director, Flora Smith. Cushley’s performance as Frederic also effectively balanced the characters’ absurd sense of duty and his desire for justice and love of Mabel.
In terms of the overall aesthetic, they seemed to keep things quite simple; you could really tell that the production was much more about the performance and music than it was about the set design or visual aesthetic. The props were definitely minimal, including a few swords, batons, and a bizarre goody bag of improvised pirate weapons. They projected photos onto the back wall to use as backgrounds, first of a beach and, after in the second half, of St Andrews Cathedral. Apart from a few boxes at the back of the stage, which worked as chairs or hiding places, the performers basically worked on a blank stage. The costumes were very well done and added a much more Victorian English flavor to the opera rather than that of any far-off pirate fantasy. Once again, the focus here seemed to be on the music, singing and acting.
Pirates of Penzance has definitely made me want to see more of Gilbert and Sullivan’s plays. There is plenty of vintage wit and satire here, which is still both funny and interesting. It was fascinating to see the social values and conflict of Victorian England recreated and examined through a nineteenth century satire. But it was much more than an artefact. The jokes are still funny and the songs still memorable. Despite a few minor mistakes, the Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s production did not lack at all in humour, wit, and meaning—a thoroughly fun and enjoyable experience.