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The Pirates of Penzance

Gilbert and Sullivan

National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company

Buxton Opera House

August 2 - 12, 2023. 2 hrs 15 mins

Further performances on 11 August (2.30pm) and 12 August (7.30pm)

Bruce Graham and chorus in a previous NGSOC production of The Pirates of Penzance
Bruce Graham and chorus in a previous NGSOC production of The Pirates of Penzance
Banner showing a three and a half star rating

Simon Butteriss is both director and star performer for this year’s International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival production of The Pirates of Penzance. And he does both very well.

It’s the well-loved show as the G&S community loves it: firmly set in the 19th century, all the jokes dutifully rolled out, applause after practically every musical number, and lots of knowing winks and asides to the audience. The costumes are very clearly Victorian, with General Stanley’s daughters (ie the ladies of the chorus) disporting themselves in frillies and bloomers for their beachwear, and the policemen in helmets of the period.

I think he has been doing some research to determine exactly what period – after all if Frederic, born on February 29, has to have 16 more birthdays until he attains his 21st – in 1940, as the script says – then, bearing in mind 1900 was not going to be a leap year, the piece must be set in 1872, nearly eight years before its premiere. (You can understand why Mabel, looking forward to marriage to an 89-year-old, laments “It seems so long!”)

There’s one reference to the present, though, when Matthew Siveter as the Pirate King, declares that their skills could lie in scuttling a Cunarder “… or cutting out a Theatrical Adventure …” – naming the new riverboat cruising enterprise of the G&S Festival, heavily promoted in the literature this year.

The action on stage is remarkably 21st-century too, in some aspects, as the aforesaid chorus ladies are a feisty lot and not only enjoy their fitness exercises but also get pretty physical with the pirates.

The National Festival Orchestra played well for the performance I heard, which was the second of the day, and Murray Hipkins’ musical direction was masterly. But a few of the voices were heard at less than full strength after a busy weekend (and no doubt more rehearsals in the past two days).

Matthew Siveter, however, dominated the stage and made his character nearly the hero of the tale. Meriel Cunningham (Edith) was again outstandingly good to listen to, and Gaynor Keeble indefatigable as Ruth. Emily Vine had her coloratura to display as Mabel, (as in last year’s production), and Bruce Graham (Sergeant of Police) was incomparably himself.

There is some inventive choreography by Rae Piper and Paul Chantry, and great moments such as the full-throated “Hail, poetry!” and the opening tableau of Act 2.

And of course, if faster-than-you-believed-possible patter songs are the quintessence of your G&S, you can’t beat Mr Butteriss as that very model of a modern major-general.

More info and tickets here


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