The Pirates of Penzance
January 6 to March 20, 2004 : Savoy Theatre, London
My friend Pauline wanted to see Anthony Head on stage; as a Giles fan, I was amenable to this, so off we went to The Savoy. The result was akin to my response on first seeing Hamlet. Shakespeare was full of familiar quotations: Pirates was full of songs I had heard before; heard, but never fully appreciated. Gilbert's wit leaps off the page, but now seeing and hearing the songs in context, with more hit tunes than a dozen other shows, I discovered the perfection of character and story revealed through music.
I understand that director Steven Dexter was given a brief to produce an acting version of Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta: in this he succeeded admirably. The entire cast worked very well together. All sang and danced most charmingly, and - joy of joys - every word was clearly heard in every part of the auditorium. Each member of the talented cast had an opportunity to engage our attention, and the leads were splendid. Particular mention must go to Elin Wyn Lewis in her first professional appearance as Mabel: a gloriously sweet voice that bewitched her audience. Hadley Fraser was an engaging Frederic; Kathryn Evans gave a powerhouse of a performance as Ruth, and Anthony Head was a splendidly swaggering Pirate King. Whilst his voice did not have quite the resonance I associated with the role, his acting and humour made up for this. His scenes with Ruth were especially enjoyable. The cast sent its audience out into the night happily humming Sullivan's melodies, and still savouring Gilbert's clever lyrics. Francis O'Connor's superb sets, in my mind, became almost members of the cast, for they added impact to the scenes, helped the story along, and changes were so smoothly executed that they never obstructed the action.
After first seeing the show, as we exploded into the street, fizzing with adrenaline, I cried, "I must see it again". Pauline stopped, and in great relief told me that she was longing to see it again too, but had not wanted to say so as she thought she could not ask me to watch it twice. Years ago I told Pauline that in the old, great, days of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, I used to see my favourite productions many times over - a possibility which she had then thought very strange, and which she never thought to follow. Perhaps she never believed me, or thought only Shakespeare affected me so.
After the second time we saw it, we bounced out of the theatre and I shouted, "I must see it again!", to Pauline's yet further relief. After the third time we saw it, we did not speak of seeing it again, but sat down with our diaries to find out how many more performances we could get to, and which of our friends and family we should take to see the show. Pauline had to return home to Cardiff, but was back in London as soon as could be, and we saw as many more as we could, including both matinee and evening performances on the last day.
When the Pirates stormed onto the stage with their famously catlike tread for the last time, and the roaring standing audience persuaded them to several times reprise the number, I wondered if the shade of the exacting Gilbert haunted the theatre, and if it was pleased to know that 125 years after its first production at The Savoy, his masterwork was still making new converts, as well as pleasing those who were already followers of the D'Oyle Carte Company.
I was interested to note that Gilbert pre-emptied Joan Littlewood by some years. The scene in which the General's delightful daughters exhort the constabulary to "Go to death and go to glory" (a song that could have come straight out of Oh, What a Lovely War) shows them to have far more martial spirit than their father, and still has power to shock in spite of the laughs.
book and lyrics: W.S.Gilbert