Review by John Lombard
Canberra Philo’s new production of Pirates of Penzance captures the fun of being a pirate, with its troupe of buccaneers jumping around the stage with all the enthusiasm of kids playing dress-up. The ship set with its hanging ropes for climbing and swinging almost feels like a playground jungle gym for a cast that are obviously have a grand time as the (mostly) harmless swashbucklers of this Gilbert and Sullivan musical.
We open with the pirates celebrating the birthday of the spectacularly unlikeable Frederick (Marcus Hurley). Frederick, having been mistakenly indentured to the pirates at a young age, is now free of his indentures and able to become a full member of their band. The self-righteous, proud Frederick instead announces that now he is free of his apprenticeship he intends to raise an army and wipe out the comrades he fought alongside for all these years. The charismatic Pirate King (Shane Horsburgh) is saddened to lose such a talented pirate, but generously gives Frederick his blessing, both completely unthreatened by Frederick and a firm believer that everyone should follow their conscience.
Marcus Hurley plays Frederick with poses and gestures borrowed from silent movies, positioning Frederick as the hero he would doubtlessly be if he was in a play that had more respect for him. Librettist W.S. Gilbert is parodying the heroic pirate genre - in particular its reliance on convenient repentance to get everyone out of trouble - by setting Frederick up as the noble hero pitched in dire struggle against foes who are, in fact, likeable and harmless. For the Pirates of Penzance have a famous weakness, that they will always spare the life of an orphan, and as such have the hard luck that whenever they try to pillage and plunder they only ever seem to come up against entire ships and towns stocked with orphans. Even the doddering Major-General (David Cannell) is able to outwit the pirates fairly effortlessly, establishing that for all his grand talk Frederick’s quest is basically pointless. These are pirates who, among other things, have a healthy respect for the boundaries of occupational health and safety.
This production starts off slowly, partly the fault of a script that takes most of the first act to set up the conflict of the play. However from the introduction of the Major-General and his endless parade of daughters (he collects wards of chancery as a comfort to his old age), the energy of the show picks up dramatically and never really loses it. This is partly because the story is finally gathering steam, but also because David Cannell’s Major-General is nothing short of spectacular. Cannell is goofy and silly, sporting a rubber ducky life preserver as he not so much outwits as befuddles the pirates. Cannell is an absolute joy to watch, a spoiled and sulky old man who is too needy to be a martinet, but somehow mysteriously always manages to get his own way.
The singing is effective throughout, but two cast members in particular give brilliant vocal performances. Marcus Hurley’s voice as Frederick is powerful, but his potential lover Mabel (Maddison Lymn) has a soprano that is absolutely sublime. Her phenomenal voice gives many of the later numbers a thrill that they would have lacked with a weaker singer. Mabel is herself as sanctimonious as Frederick and therefore perfect for him, painting the hook-up of two young, attractive people as an act of supreme self-sacrifice. We are left with no doubt that they will be very happy together finding progressively grander and more ludicrous ways of using each other to make themselves look good.
While a fun performance, it is also a very conservative production, skipping many opportunities to throw in references to contemporary events. Cannell’s Major-General slips in the most modern barbs, in his patter song launching into a stanza on his hard-kenned knowledge of social media (such as twitter and, of course, grinder) that is absolutely hilarious and shows how much stronger the show could have been if it had been willing to play more with its source material. After all, Gilbert and Sullivan were mocking contemporary events - the paradox of Gilbert and Sullivan performances is that the more they are spruced up and updated, the truer they become to their original incarnation.
But in the end, it’s just fun to be a pirate, and it’s almost as much fun to watch the Pirates of Penzance. It’s just a shame that Gilbert and Sullivan never wrote a sequel.
A sequel with ninjas.