In many ways, it seemed a natural choice. Mike Leigh has long been a champion of Gilbert and Sullivan, his love for the Savoy Operas epitomised in his admirable film Topsy-Turvy, which charts the creative conflict between librettist and composer leading up to the première of The Mikado. However, handing him the director’s chair for ENO’s production of The Pirates of Penzance was also a brave choice. Leigh has absolutely no experience of directing for the musical stage. It showed.

Rob Murray (Frederic), Joshua Bloom (Pirate King) and Rebecca de Pont Davies (Ruth) © Tristram Kenton | ENO
Rob Murray (Frederic), Joshua Bloom (Pirate King) and Rebecca de Pont Davies (Ruth)
© Tristram Kenton | ENO

In his programme note, Leigh remarks that the Savoy Operas have been “much discredited by stale productions”. How ironic that his own production is as stale as a week-old loaf. Admittedly, it comes brightly dressed; the costumes are traditional and lavish and Alison Chitty’s set is daubed in bold colours. But it is also one of the cheapest looking sets ever to have graced the Coliseum stage. A porthole appears in a blue wall, through which the orange deck of the pirates’ ship pokes gingerly. At other times, the porthole opens out to display a vast expanse of exactly the same blue – the ‘straight out of the powder-paint tin’ type of blue that five year olds naïvely use to paint the sky. The “rocky mountains” which Major-General Stanley’s daughters negotiate to reach the shore look like bright green climbing apparatus from an adventure playground. The production team may well have been aiming for a cartoonish design. It merely looks amateurish.

Leigh’s direction bears all the traits of village hall Am-Dram at its worst. He simply doesn’t know what to do with his cast, especially when they’re not singing. Poor Frederic mopes around at the side of the stage during the Major-General’s first scene looking like an abandoned puppy. A lot of the time, singers are left to their own devices. Gilbert and Sullivan called their works “comic operas”. I laughed just twice: first, when the frontcloth, which had depicted a seagull during the breezy overture, descended at the end of Act I, where the seagull had been usurped by a parrot. Secondly, when the policemen, hiding from the pirates, popped their heads and truncheons from all angles around the porthole to utter their pianissimo “tarantaras” – the sort of comic nonsense that tickles my funny bone. It’s only fair to report that much of the audience had a riot, guffawing at the dialogue – how tediously drawn out is the “orphan/often” gag? – and cheering Leigh to the rafters.

Andrew Shore (Major-General Stanley) © Tristram Kenton | ENO
Andrew Shore (Major-General Stanley)
© Tristram Kenton | ENO

Musically, the performance had much to commend it. Claudia Boyle’s Mabel stood out for her sparkling coloratura and vivid stage presence. Her “Poor wandering one!” was easily the highlight of the evening. Joshua Bloom’s resonant Pirate King impressed, as did the honeyed tone of Rob Murray’s Frederic, the pirates’ apprentice whose “sense of duty” causes him so much turmoil. Andrew Shore blustered and spluttered appropriately as Major-General Stanley, using all his opera buffa experience to deliver the text of his patter song with great polish.

Jonathan Lemalu (Sergeant of Police), Claudia Boyle (Mabel) and ENO Chorus © Tristram Kenton | ENO
Jonathan Lemalu (Sergeant of Police), Claudia Boyle (Mabel) and ENO Chorus
© Tristram Kenton | ENO

Projection was a problem for several other members of the cast, with some voices not big enough for such a vast auditorium. Rebecca de Pont Davies made little of Ruth, the maid-of-all-work with romantic designs on Frederic. It is sad to reflect that Jonathan Lemalu, once a bass-baritone of great potential, is now so under-powered, delivering his Sergeant of Police in almost a half-voice, albeit with a convincing Cornish accent. Surtitles were used for most of the sung element of the performance, but were not employed for the dialogue, where they would have been unnecessary.

David Parry kept things buoyant in the pit, the orchestra responding with a spirited account of Sullivan’s frothy score. The production, however, did nothing to make me fall in love with G&S and deserves to sink without trace. All in all, a dispiriting evening. 

**111