This brief run of The Pirates of Penzance, a co-production with Charles Court Opera, felt like an end-of-term romp after Opera Holland Park’s season of hard-earned success in these ping-infested times. All four of the company’s main summer offerings have been ecstatically received by audiences in the redesigned auditorium, so no one could deny them their jubilant epilogue.

Peter Kirk (Frederic), John Savournin (The Pirate King), Frederick Long (Samuel) and ensemble
© Ali Wright

It may seem odd to be reviewing the season’s last hurrah rather than its first night, but it’s a fitting way to hail the fact that it happened at all. “We did it!” yelled chief executive James Clutton in a curtain speech that acknowledged the 250 freelancers who made it all happen – a cry that could well be shared by the other summer companies who’ve got through 2021. We owe them.

There are two pocket companies in the UK who’ve flown the flag in recent years for Gilbert and Sullivan. Sasha Regan’s all-male band of brothers (and sisters) has done wonders, providing blissful hilarity and never veering from the published works despite the gender gimmick; but it’s John Savournin who has carried the torch for SATB excellence as well as ROFL with with his above-the-pub epics for Charles Court Opera. At Holland Park his regular music director David Eaton was given a bigger toybox than usual to play with – the redoubtable City of London Sinfonia rather than a jangly upright piano – while Savournin as director had a whole lot of stage to use and a tonne of ideas to fill it with.

Daisy Brown (Mabel) and Richard Burkhard (Major-General Stanley)
© Ali Wright

During Sullivan’s overture a painter-decorator entered, brushed an imaginary twiddle in the air and departed, never to be seen again. Lord knows what that was about. Much clearer was the child’s nursery whose toys and board games became participants in the tale we were about to witness. If you’ve seen the old film of Tom Thumb you’ll get an idea of the aesthetic in Rachel Szmukler’s designs, complete with a curly-headed hero in Peter Kirk’s gloriously sung Frederic and a scattergun ragbag of living Victorian dolls.

Numerically the cast was relatively small – 17 in all, including a handful of OHP’s excellent choristers – but they all had a job to do and a fair few roles to double up on. There was not a weak link among them. Kirk’s sweet-toned tenor met his match in Daisy Brown’s Mabel, and at one moment the soprano’s stupendous coloratura stopped the show in mid-flow. If I’ve heard the ingénue lead sung this well only rarely, in the case of Richard Burkhard’s Major-General Stanley I can safely say never. This under-valued baritone, last seen as Faninal in Garsington’s Der Rosenkavalier, is one of the UK greats and should be celebrated as such. He had a giant clockwork mechanism in his back (yes, he was a toy soldier) and needed winding up at key moments to help get him through his flawless patter song. Brilliant.

Richard Burkhard (Major-General Stanley)
© Ali Wright

Frederick Long was a bluff, gruff Samuel, Trevor Eliot Bowes a china-doll Sergeant of Police and Alys Mererid Roberts, Sophie Dicks and Lotte Betts-Dean a treat as Mabel’s featured sisters. With Savournin himself camping it up as the Pirate King, strutting and braying like a member of the House of Peers, and Yvonne Howard in self-deprecating form as Ruth (how long will it be, one wonders, before Pirates is banned for being anti-woke?) this cast could have found fun in a phone book. 

*****