Shiver me timbers!

15 February 2008

The Pirates of Penzance, Cambridge Arts Theatre, 11- 16 February, 19:45

4 stars

Reviewer Sarah Wilkinson

An audible gasp resonated through the auditorium as the curtains were lifted. Silhouetted effectively behind gauze was an enormous pirate ship, complete with rigging and a smattering of its pirate clientele decorously placed. As Sullivan’s self-indulgent overture panned out, we were given plenty of time to ponder the workmanship involved in constructing this dominatrix of a set piece, and also to reflect upon the live (and thankfully excellent) orchestra. When the actors were finally released from their positions, the gauze was lifted and we were treated to another visual delight as the interior of the ship was revealed.

Hammocks and rigging aside, the male chorus gave a professional first impression – producing a rich collective sound and performing their hornpipes with evident gusto. Fiona Mackay as Ruth, the ‘plain’ nursemaid, is also excellent. Her opening song established her as not only a talented singer, but also as a superb comedic actress. For the first few numbers she commanded the stage, even detracting from the princely Tom Cane (playing Fredric), yet at times she let the audience’s laughter push her towards pantomime in her facial expressions and gestures. Cane is blessed with Prince Charming looks and a velvety voice, but it took him a while to warm up and he only began to look comfortable once surrounded by his bevy of sporadically doting women. Following this scene, however, his excellent comic timing emerged and he led the cast through their romps and rollicks with a calm assurance.

At times the choreography let the production down. With such a slick set and such glossy performances (notably from David F Walton as the Major General and Edwin Hillier as Sergeant of the Police), the dancing looks amateur in contrast – particularly for the girls. One large chorus number resembled a high-speed version of an S Club 7 routine, whilst the ballet steps chosen often appeared to be beyond the grasp of the female dancers. The fight scene (choreographed by Sam Hunt), however, is well constructed, as are the moments of balletic parody for the pirates and the policemen.

Usually when I think of Gilbert and Sullivan my tongue retreats feebly at the prospect of Gilbert’s twisting librettos and I have sudden painful visions of frolicking school-maidens and men prancing prissily in quaint sailor suits. When I consider the pair in future, however, I will recall with pleasure the soaring soprano of Mary Ellen Lynall and the face of Uriel Adiv- playing the campest policeman since Constable Goody (James Dreyfus) in the BBC’s The Thin Blue Line.