Good Staging and Choreography in Buxton’s Pirates

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gilbert & Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance: G & S Opera Company/Andrew Nicklin (conductor), John Savournin (director & choreographer), Buxton Gilbert & Sullivan Festival, Opera House, Buxton, 28.7.2013 (RJW)

G&S Pirates 29.7.13
G&S Pirates. Photo Credit Charles Smith


Richard Gauntlett … Major General Stanley
John Savournin … Pirate King
Louis Dall’Ava … Samuel
Nicholas Sharratt … Frederic
Bruce Graham … Sergeant of the Police
Alexandra Hutton … Mabel
Amy Payne… Edith
Nichola Jolley … Kate
Amy Spruce … Isobel
Sylvia Clarke … Ruth

Of the numerous Gilbert and Sullivan shows presented this last twelve months The Pirates of Penzance has been clearly the favourite. This Buxton professional production follows on the tail of the Scottish Opera/D’Oyly Carte revival which finished touring only a few weeks ago. For me this version matches well the quality of the Scottish Opera/D’Oyly Carte from the point of view of strength of performance and musical quality, yet it has the edge choreographically, visually and in staging. Casting was well-matched to the singers’ strengths and the chorus was on good form. This work is the achievement of 28 year old director John Savournin who is a seasoned professional in G&S and well known at Gilbert & Sullivan Society events and Sir Arthur Sullivan Society conventions.

Its cheery opening carried a certain amount of additional impact with pirates sitting at long tables to finish a late breakfast and to provide an opportunity for useful drinking activity. The bespectacled daughters of General Stanley, a touch on the gorpy side, brought fresh interest to their first meeting with Frederic while their capture by the pirates at the end of Act I was effective and led to a powerful finale climax. Flow was not marred by gimmicky actions that often mask the plot and detract from one’s enjoyment: here the plot developed meaningfully as much directional energy was nicely put into developing believable characterisations. I rather liked the Major General’s business of agitation and pacing fussily during his well-delivered patter song. Instead of arriving with a picnic basket, a huge luncheon hamper is brought on with its overtones of upper class snobbery that to me amplifies Gilbert’s interest in class distinction.

Alexandra Hutton as Mabel was stunning: her register was wide, her tops strong, and her timbre and coloratura in “Poor wandering one” delightful. I hope we shall see more of her in future G&S productions. John Savournin gave an authoritative performance as the Pirate King which his resonant bass voice and clear diction ensuring a memorable performance. Nicholas Sharratt gave good support as Frederic and played the role with gusto. I should have liked him to interact more emotionally with other characters by noticeable eye contact, perhaps. Having played a different Frederic for Scottish Opera he was able to take on the gauntlet of this differently-styled production without difficulty.

Richard Gauntlet as Major General Stanley made the most of his encounter with the pirate band and annunciated his patter song clearly: his make-up was superb and I only wish more attention had been paid to ageing and toning the skin of the pirates. Bland faced police looked the part and led by Bruce Graham, a seasoned actor in this part, their Act II escapades were ‘generally admired’. To find a fresh and funny slant to the Tarantara routine when most ideas have been dredged since Papp’s first camp Pirates of 1980 must have been difficult, but the truncheon holding ‘fairy rings’ was new and amusing. Sylvia Clarke was a robust Ruth and she eyed-up her difficulties with Frederic with believable concern. The Paradox trio was well harmonised by its singers.

In this production the two conventionally-dressed sets are appealing, and thankfully without any irritation of over-stylized design that avant garde designers are so desperate to thrust upon us (and are ill-suited to authentic Victorian theatre). Paul Lazell’s Ruined Chapel set was exceptionally fine and provided logical places for the police to hide, a point often forgotten in other productions. The scene was complemented by appropriately atmospheric cross-lighting.

I enjoyed the well-considered choreography, use of the full stage and the traditional chord-ending of numbers being synchronised to movement routines, as Gilbert might have directed in 1879. Additionally, the chorus members have their own bits of choreographic detail which is used to nice effect in the Act I’s finale, “Here’s a first rate opportunity”. Later, a chain of pirates in “Here’s your crowbar..” pass along burglary tools that end up unknowingly in the hands of the police squatting behind shrubbery: this was a nice touch. And I was cheered to see that a property Dark Lantern was correct in style (unlike an incorrect type used by Scottish Opera/D’Oyly Carte). There were many nuances of detail that helped make the performance memorable: the stage pictures provided by certain groupings was charming.

The Festival Orchestra, ably led as usual by Sally Robinson, were on form under Andrew Nicklin’s baton and provided a first class reading of the score. A surprise was to hear some new opening bars to the start of an otherwise conventional overture, but the change worked well. The ensemble work, especially in “Hail Poetry”, was strong and well-balanced throughout.

This company clearly works together as a strong team: to take only five days in preparation yet provide such quality of performance, elegant settings and fitting stock costumes, is a fantastic achievement for any professional group governed by the constraints of expense, and especially when putting on this work for five performances. The Pirates of Penzance is performed again on August 4th.

Raymond J Walker