Reviewed: Pirates of Penzance

Caroline Gaunt has strong praise for DULOG’s latest play.

Pirates of Penzance

It's not hard to see why DULOG have shied away from the Gilbert and Sulllivan canon for a while. Written over a hundred years ago, groaning under the weight of period references and with famously complicated scores one can understandably ask whether it is possible to make G and S relevant, enjoyable and, crucially, funny, to a contemporary audience. Fortunately, with some of Durham’s most gifted musical performers at the helm, the answer is a resounding yes.

I must firstly commend the orchestra, who, under the expert leadership of Musical Director Seth Miall, were note perfect from beginning to end and simply a joy to listen to. Miall’s dedication and hard work was evident throughout – musically, Pirates of Penzance does not put a food wrong. From Elissa Churchill’s (Mabel) soaring soprano to Jamie Woollard’s (Sergeant of Police) exquisite bass tones (‘When a felon’s not engaged in his employment’ was, for me, the highlight of the entire show), the leads are absolutely captivating throughout the musical numbers, which are further enhanced by Emma Cave’s choreography. Although, as Cave herself admits, ‘choreography is not something that is usually associated with Gilbert and Sullivan,’ she has succeeded in creating numbers which are as impressive visually as they are aurally.

Vocal clarity is of paramount importance in a wordy operetta such as this one, and an area in which many casts fall short, but fortunately this is evidently something that both Miall and director Julia Loveless have insisted on – rendering the ensemble numbers that bit more enjoyable. Although the male chorus are possibly slightly outshone by their gloriously melodramatic female counterparts, both choruses work well in tandem, and every chorus member shows an impressive level of personal characterisation which really adds to the comedy of the larger chorus numbers.

This is pleasing as characterisation can be a major issue with G and S, who are not particularly noted for their scintillating dialogue or well-rounded characters – productions of Pirates can therefore run the risk of falling flat in between musical numbers. Most of the cast manage to avoid the trap – there were standout performances from Rozi Prekop (Ruth) – a commanding presence from the outset, even in the ensemble numbers – and Doug Gibbs (Major-General Stanley). Gibbs was, as ever, brilliant to watch, and must be commended in particular for the outstanding delivery of ‘I am the very model of a modern Major-General,’ which had the audience quite literally crying with laughter in no small part due to the addition of Durham references. Other performers were, however, less successful, and I found myself particularly frustrated by Leo Morrell’s over-the-top turn as the Pirate King which left the audience flat and sapped any potential comedy out of his scenes.

Technically, again, the production was as near enough faultless. The beautifully crafted set managed to add depth to the stage after the removal of the apron to accommodate the orchestra. The Assembly Rooms stage is not an easy platform to coordinate for ensemble work, particularly when this space is removed, and I was impressed that spacing had not become an issue – a credit to Loveless and her cast.

DULOG’S Pirates of Penzance is a truly excellent show – hilarious, warm, captivating and beautifully sung, I can only congratulate Julia Loveless and the rest of her production team for resurrecting Gilbert and Sullivan and producing such a fantastic evening’s entertainment.