By his own admission, Mike Leigh is no opera director. He describes his 1999 movie Topsy-Turvy, on Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas, as an "unashamed celebration" of their music but, he countered, "I really have no interest in directing such things". Times change. Leigh’s Pirates, first launched at English National Opera in 2015, is back at a packed Coliseum with a new cast dripping with crisp enthusiasm but just as nice as before. And here the problem lies.
There is something wonderful in post-truth, post-referendum Britain in keeping G&S clean and traditional; no tricks, no bawdy slapstick, no nods to the contemporary – but the level of reverence given to this work drains it of any excitement. There’s nothing new or inventive about Leigh’s production, which is not a crime in itself; but neither is there an abundance of energy, made all the more obvious in such a large venue. Lacking both, the effect is rather subdued.
This is not to say that the principals lack quality. On the contrary, stellar performances gave the evening little peaks of triumph. Soraya Mafi, returning to the production but stepping up a sister, is ravishing as Mabel. Her scintillating parodic coloratura “Poor Wand’ring one” was just the right amount of sexy, although she faded somewhat in the second act; attempting to rally a rather dismally choreographed police brigade – a deliberate portrayal of emotional rigidity is one thing, ennui quite another – one had the sense that she was flogging a horse that, although not quite dead, was certainly very sleepy.
David Webb was a charming, if wet, Frederic, but it was the swashing and buckling of Pirate King Ashley Riches that injected some much-needed oomph in to the pacing – not to mention some excellent singing. Possibly thanks to the revival direction of Sarah Tipple, the pirate scenes feel far fresher and better energised than their 2015 incarnation. Lucy Schaufer’s swaggering Ruth was pleasurably loveable. Sir John Tomlinson’s comic turn as the Sergeant of Police was a masterclass in understatement; his resigned lament "When a felon's not engaged in his employment" was deliciously paced, something replicated by Andrew Shore’s infamous Major-General’s song. In such a cavernous venue, each word was spat out with flourish – no easy feat in the cavernous Coliseum.