The Pirates of Penzance

Mar 18 2016 | By More

★★★★☆   Stand out

Pleasance Theatre: Tue 15 – Sat 19 Mar 2016
Review by Thom Dibdin

Entertaining, splendidly on song and given a nicely modern twist, the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group’s Pirates of Penzance is a treat on many levels.

The twisting story of the indentured pirate, Frederic, burdened with an overdeveloped sense of duty – which he applies to an increasingly ludicrous set of circumstances – is told with strong comedy underpinned by a solid performance from the pit.

Act 1 Finale. Photo: Oliver Buchanan Photography

Act 1 Finale. Photo: Oliver Buchanan Photography

Director Charlie Ralph and musical director Will Briant ensure that the basics are solid. Moreover, they know the value of keeping things simple: there’s enough buzzing around Gilbert’s plot without gilding that particular lilly.

Briant’s orchestra is on the button. The overture alone is a thing of beauty, with the woodwind section particularly well turned-out. They are clear, bravely phrased and provide a warm glow to an already crisp and confident performance.

On stage that confidence is carried through to the physical performances of the pirate crew, cavorting around the stage like a renegade bunch of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys. And on the singing front, although there is an initial over-reliance on amplification – to the detriment of quality of tone – it is rectified when sound manager Louis McHugh calms down a notch.

Tom Whiston gives a solid, lean performance as Frederic, who takes the opportunity of his 21st birthday to announce that, as his indenture is finished, he is leaving the pirate band. The pirates have less depth to their voices, but use them with confidence.


Most importantly, and this is true for the production as a whole, the company have worked hard on the enunciation. Even when the voices are not as perfectly formed as they might be, the clever, twisting words are easy to understand.

Pirates - photo Oliver Buchanan Photography

Pirates. Photo: Oliver Buchanan Photography

Indeed, the whole – rather regretful – comedy of the pirates and their relationship with Frederic’s unfortunate nursemaid, Ruth, is excellently handled. Lucy Davidson steps out to explain, with real clarity, how she misheard Frederic’s father and placed him with pirates not pilots.

Director Charlie Ralph’s scheme begins to come clear here – the humour in the idea that Ruth is too plain to be attractive is obviously of a different age. But by emphasising it, the comedy turns not on the idea itself, but on the foolishness of those who perpetrate it.

Wandering off from the pirates, Frederic falls amongst a bevy of maidens, daughters of the Major General, who believe themselves all alone by the sea.

A quintet of excellent performances from the maidens sets the scene nicely for them to discover the watching Frederic and for him to discover the sixth daughter, Mabel. And some of Sullivan’s most glorious tunes come into play as they fall in love. As you do. And with more of this miss-placed attention to plainness.

exquisite tone

Caoilainn McGarry as Mabel is a little thin of timbre on her lower register. But once her voice moves into the upper register, she can relax and her ability to hit the high notes – and then to up the ante and let her voice drift a whole exquisite note higher – is exceptional.

Policemen. Photo Oliver Buchanan Photography

Policemen. Photo: Oliver Buchanan Photography

The Major General is always the trickiest part for a young company such as this to bring off successfully. The patter songs can be something of a parlour trick, rushed at with over zealous attention to speed.

Not so here. James Strahan brings strong, solid enunciation and, under more very sensible direction, milks the whole of his much anticipated I am the very model of a Modern Major General for its full comedy value. It’s great stuff all round, and helped no end by intelligent lighting from Cat Neufeld.

The second half of the show does suffer a little. Notably in the big sweeps of song which, under the best hand, merge easily one into the other and carry the plot along in a glorious muddle of song and comedy.

What doesn’t suffer is the comedy – and choreographer Meera Munoz Pandya has created some utterly hillarious sequences for the policemen, whose lot is not a happy one. Referencing the jumping gait of Massai Warriors, mashed up with early punk pogoing, it is comedy gold in itself.

This might not be a perfect production, but it gets much right – and in enough of the right places – to make the whole event a hugely watcheable night out.

Running time two hours and five minutes (with one interval).
Pleasance Theatre, The Pleasance, EH8 9TL.
Tuesday 15 – Saturday 19 March 2016
Evenings: 7.30pm; Matinee Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets from:


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