The Pirates of Penzance

Mar 26 2015 | By More

✭✭✭✭✩   Plenty of pizzazz

King’s Theatre: Tues 24 – Sat 28 March 2015

Fun, games and top-notch singing abound in The Pirates of Penzance at the King’s.

The Edinburgh Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s production, of what is one of the most-performed Savoy Operas, is reassuringly traditional, very strong musically, and extremely funny.

Fred and the Major's Daughters. Photo Ross Main

Frederic and the Major-General’s daughters. Photo Ross Main

Frederic, a young man who is a ‘slave of duty’, has just been released from his apprenticeship to a bunch of ineffectual pirates on reaching the age of twenty-one. This leaves him free to marry Mabel, the Major-General’s daughter. Or so he believes….

Even by the standards of Gilbert and Sullivan, it is hardly a particularly involved plot, and the piece’s huge popularity surely owes more to the parade of familiar tunes and a score that seems to lampoon more ‘serious’ operas. Certainly this staging tries hard to wring the maximum amount of comedy from the piece, chucking in a series of comic devices up to and including a pantomime horse.

The outstanding comedic performer is undoubtedly Ian Lawson, whose Major-General Stanley is hugely impressive. I Am The Very Model of a Modern Major-General is so familiar it can be taken for granted or almost thrown away, but here every unlikely syllable is presented as a novelty. Lawson’s physical comedy is also extremely accomplished, with his twitching gait around the stage a particular joy.

Michael McFarlane’s performance as young Frederic is perhaps a little too knowing in relishing the situation’s absurdity, but he possesses a strong tenor that helps him do justice to the material.

an exceptional voice

Gillian Robertson’s Mabel is a wonderfully over-the-top diva, with her first solo, Poor Wand’ring One, complete with cod-operatic coloratura, splendidly bizarre. Throughout, she displays an exceptional voice, with some top notes whose strength has to be heard to be believed. She also cuts a fairly fearsome figure while swishing a sword, exhorting the band of policemen to go to their deaths.

Mabel and Frederick. Photo Ross Main

Mabel and Frederic. Photo Ross Main

This concentration on comedy does mean that the pair’s love duets are correspondingly less effective, but once again their vocal power means that they are never less than involving. They are also backed up by a well-drilled orchestra under the indefatigable leadership of musical director David Lyle.

Director Alan Borthwick manages to fill the King’s stage with an equally well-drilled chorus. The opening scene features some particularly cleverly choreographed pirates led by Scott Thomson, who is a charming Pirate King, and Gordon Christie who turns in a winningly daft portrayal as his sidekick Samuel.

The policeman’s chorus is perhaps not quite so snappy, but features some more well-conceived comic business and a strong performance by Andrew Crawford as the Sergeant. Once again, Crawford manages to make an over familiar song (When A Felon’s Not Engaged In His Employment, the ‘policeman’s lot’ number) seem relatively fresh.

The Sargeant and his men contemplate the policeman's lot and find it is not as happy as one might suppose. Photo Ross Main

The Sergeant and his men contemplate the policeman’s lot and find it is not as happy as one might suppose. Photo Ross Main

The female chorus are particularly strong throughout, with Annabel Hamid, Sarah Kim and Rachel Allan as Mabel’s sisters all taking their chance to shine. One of the night’s most impressive turns comes from Susanne Horsburgh as Ruth, the ‘pirate maid of all work’ whose mistaking of ‘pirate’ for ‘pilot’ led to Frederic’s unfortunate employment.

Horsburgh’s strong singing, excellent timing and sympathetic acting mean that the audience are definitely on her side when Frederic takes her to task early on for supposedly exaggerating her physical attractiveness (he has never seen any other women, apparently).

Even leaving aside the high level of musicality on show, there is a considerable comic momentum and drive to this production that means it would have extremely wide appeal. It would be particularly good for younger audiences, or anyone who thinks G&S is dusty and dull. What is missing is that little extra spark of magic, the conviction that there might be something more than a jolly romp going on.

There are economic demands that require Pirates – and a very traditional Pirates such as this – to be regularly revived at the expense of a less obvious piece of G&S. These demands can stop companies pushing the boat out. However, it can be done – there is one moment in Hail, Poetry, when glitter falls from above, that is a breathtaking moment of theatricality, and more in that vein would not have gone amiss. Nevertheless, there is enough great singing and winning comedy here to keep anyone smiling.

Running time: 2 hours 15 mins (including interval)
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ
Tuesday 24 – Saturday 28 March 2015
Evenings 7.30 pm, Matinee Saturday at 2.30 pm
Tickets from
Company web page

The very model of a modern major general. Photo Ross Main

The very model of a modern major general. Photo Ross Main


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