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Petticoated pirate romp: The Pirates of Penzance at ENO

***11
By , 11 February 2017

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.

Ashley Riches (The Pirate King) and Andrew Shore (Major General Stanley)
© Tom Bowles

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.

Soraya Mafi (Mabel) and ENO Chorus
© Tom Bowles

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.  

Sir John Tomlinson (Sergeant of Police) and ENO Chorus
© Tom Bowles

When the pacing worked, it really worked – moments of unbridled frolicking and romping were breaths of fresh air, and one had the rather pleasant sense that the enormous chorus was enjoying itself, despite being hampered by Alison Chitty’s abstract, panelled sets. Perhaps such understated panels of colour, cut in circles, would have worked in a production that had more going on; but too frequently they muted the action, and whatever they were meant to evoke – a telescopic view? portholes? a glimpse into a toy world? – was not referenced by the rest of the production. There’s a joy in minimalism, but not when it borders on the bland.

The production cries out for some grit. Both the book and the score are masters of a very British satire, but there are deeper ideas threaded through the work, as well as opportunities to engage in truly hilarious writing. I chuckled and smiled, but nothing had me crying in the aisles: something which Pirates can – and should – deliver.

Leigh certainly has something here. There’s a glorious humour to be had in pirates that refuse to fight orphans or those weaker than themselves, and a loved-up couple preparing to wait decades because one was born on a leap year. And Leigh's understated vision is endearing and often effective. The brilliant orchestra under Gareth Jones wallowed to just the right extent, and was deliciously delicate when it needed to be. If only it could all be a little less nice.

See full listing
Reviewed at The London Coliseum, London on 9 February 2017
Programme
Sullivan, Pirates of Penzance
Performers
English National Opera
Gareth Jones, Conductor
Mike Leigh, Director
Alison Chitty, Set Designer
Andrew Shore, Major General Stanley
Ashley Riches, Pirate King
David Webb, Frederic
Johnny Herford, Samuel
Sir John Tomlinson, Sergeant of Police
Soraya Mafi, Mabel
Katie Coventry, Edith
Angharad Lyddon, Kate
Lucy Schaufer, Ruth
Sarah Tipple, Revival Director
Chorus of English National Opera
English National Opera Orchestra
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