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BWW Review: THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, Opera Holland Park


The very model of a modern rib-tickling operetta

BWW Review: THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, Opera Holland Park

BWW Review: THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, Opera Holland Park Opera Holland Park offers a variety of dishes to hungry audiences throughout the season. After the meatier affair of La Traviata and concept cuisine The Cunning Little Vixen, we move on to the chocolate soufflé of The Pirates of Penzance. However, like any light - but refined - dessert, creating a bowl of light and fluffy nonsense can be more difficult than it appears. Opera Holland Park, with Gilbert and Sullivan specialist Charles Court Opera, manages to serve up a flavoursome evening of silliness that's every bit as accomplished as existential angst or momentous tragedy.

The plot is bonkers, but clever in a Monty Python cheese sketch kind of way. A band of pirates celebrate Frederic's 21st birthday, which sees the end of his apprenticeship to them; years ago, Frederic's nursemaid, Ruth (vividly evoked by Yvonne Howard) apprenticed Frederic (confident tenor Peter Kirk) to them by mistake.

Angry Frederic wants to exterminate the pirates - they're useless at their jobs anyway, with a softness for pardoning orphans. Ruth desires escaping with Frederic and becoming his bride, but he has other ideas when he spots the Major-General's young daughters and proposes to Mabel (a standout performance by coloratura Daisy Brown).

The satirical romp involves the Major-General (Richard Burkhard, energetic as the Duracell Bunny) avoiding death by the pirates and an unsuccessful police rescue. Meanwhile, there's a hint of modern slavery when the pirates tell Frederic he was born in a leap year, so is really only five and a quarter and still an apprentice. All is well once Ruth reveals that the pirates are all of noble birth, so they're subsequently pardoned.

Multi-skilled John Savournin, starring as the Pirate King and also director of the two-act comic opera, immerses us in a Toy Story-like world where a child's birthday gifts - a Playmobil pirate ship, wind-up toy soldier and brightly coloured bricks - are brought to life.

We feast on designer Rachel Szmukler's set of giant toy boxes and bricks, clockwork Major-General Stanley with a key in his back to crank him up, OTT garish frills and bows for the General's daughters (my companion thinks they resemble late-Victorian Spice Girls), and the pirates attired in daft red-and-white stripy tops, pantaloons and stuffed parrots. Think The Nutcracker on speed.

Lighting by Jake Wiltshire is highly effective. In particular, his use of blue and white floods shining from the back of the set admirably signal, in turn, danger, seaside calm and upbeat radiance.

Conductor David Eaton is as sympathetic to the performers as a chef is to his diners, gently keeping the whole production together and maintaining the balance between singers and a reduced City of London Sinfonia. The size of the orchestra is just right for this operetta. You don't always require a hearty a la carte offering of strings; the woodwind ably sets the tone.

Gilbert and Sullivan's beloved signature hits - "I am the very model of a modern Major-General", "A policeman's lot is not a happy one" and "Tarantara" - are happily received. And yet, for a show whose triumph relies on clear quick-witted lyrics, at times it's a struggle to hear everything the cast conveys. It's a shame the audience has to rely so much on subtitles. On the plus side, the Opera Holland Park Chorus is busy throughout, gamely portraying pirates, police officers and the General's daughters.

The Pirates of Penzance is a recipe for fun - both delicious and diverting. A tasting menu with wine pairing par excellence. Tarantara!

The 2021 season continues until 17 August. For more information contact

Photo credit: Ali Wright

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