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The Pirates of Penzance (Susan Elkin reviews)

Gilbert & Sullivan. Produced by Illyria Theatre
society/company: Illyria (professional) (directory)
performance date: 11 Aug 2018
venue: Coolings Garden Centre, Knockholt, Kent (part of UK tour)

Is there anything more quintessentially, eccentrically British than sitting in a garden centre in heavy rain on your damp own camping chairs swathed in waterproofs and warm layers to lap up Gilbert and Sullivan? Bonkers we may be but actually Illyria’s The Pirates of Penzance is so exquisitely well done and such fun that the weather quickly becomes irrelevant.

Hard on the heels of the same company’s wet but glorious The Merchant of Venice at Tonbridge Castle last week, this production brims over with director Oliver Gray’s trademarks. It uses a cast of just seven – yes, that’s right, seven – with dozens of hilarious quick changes, extra jokes which respect rather than undermining the evergreen WS Gilbert, admirable slickness and warm affection. The whole cast on for the Policeman’s song, for example, with silly dance was a delightful moment. So was the “Tarantara” chorus in which two of the cast provided outrageously loud drums and cymbals from the side.

The larger than life Samuel Wright is, as ever, a terrific asset to the company. He has enough stage presence and personality to command any stage, small or large. His bass account of the Pirate King rings out with immaculately tuneful resonance and every single word is clear as with the whole of this production – another Oliver Gray trademark. How on earth Wright can do that and, seconds later, be singing alto with the women as he simpers round the stage as very overgrown daughter to General Stanley is one of those theatrical mysteries but he never misses a note or a beat and he’s glorious funny.

Alex Weatherhill’s Major General is excellent too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done with more plumes in the hat – red, white and blue in this case. He sings his famous song immaculately, gets lots of laughs and then does a prestissimo encore. His effete manner is splendid.

Mathew James Willis is a fine singer and actor, slight enough in figure to be a nice visual foil to the other too. He plays Frederick with a strangled RP accent which makes him seem nicely priggish in contrast to the other pirates and his tenor voice is very pleasing indeed.

The four women in this show work very hard and entertainingly, playing an enormous number of parts between them. Jenny Cullen’s Mabel is suitably sweet and she does an impressive Poor Wondering One and Stephanie Lysé is good as tall predatory Ruth with a rich mezzo/alto voice. Rachel Lea-Gray is an impressive leading Policman (the famous bottom note is a nice moment) and Elizabeth Chadwick gives us an engaging Stanley daughter.

One of the very best things about this lovely show is the quality of the singing. Because many of the choruses are sung with just one or two voices to a part, the harmony is as crisp and musically blended as you’ll ever hear it. Each note is as well placed as each word. Musical director, Richard Healey – hidden away on keyboard in a tent beside the stage – has done a magnificent job with this cast. He has some wacky moments appearing briefly as the Bishop of Penzance and Queen Victoria too while the cast hand on to a long chord until he can race back to the keyboard to complete the cadence – fabulous stuff.

I’m not required to give a star rating for these reviews but if I were, this The Pirates of Penzance would definitely be a 5. Meanwhile, I don’t care which G&S Illyria does next year. I shall be there (with my anorak, hoodie and rug) panting for more.

First published by Sardines:

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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