Edinburgh Fringe 2018
Pirates Revisited is a new production from The Opera North Youth Company (ONYC). This new adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” is written by John Savournin, directed by Emma Black and conducted by Nick Shaw. This is ONYC’s first visit to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, after which the production will tour to The 25th International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival in Harrogate.
This adapted version of “The Pirates of Penzance” is portrayed as a “scratch” performance by schoolchildren who find a score, libretto and props. In essence, the operetta has been condensed into a fast paced 40 minutes, with parts of the plot summarised as dialogue and some of the songs omitted or abridged.
From the moment the audience entered the theatre it was clear that this show had exceptionally high production values. In the corner was an orchestra, and the large stage was adorned with wide variety of storage boxes and props.
The lighting dimmed and the anticipation increased, as an overture of beautiful Sullivan melodies filled the space. For the rest of the show we were treated to a faultless orchestral performance – the sound and dynamics balancing perfectly with the vocal lines. It is an unexpected treat to find a nine piece orchestra, including woodwind, brass, strings and percussion at a Fringe musical!
An outstanding female chorus put down a very early marker to indicate that we were in for some exceptional vocal work. Every sung element of this show was perfectly pitched, with dynamics well nuanced and harmonies beautifully balanced. Impressively, the large cast of over 20 young people (aged 14-19) managed to finish choral notes together, despite not being able to see the conductor. If somebody in the audience was secretly guiding them, then they were very discrete! Diction too was, for the vast majority of the time, extremely clear and precise.
The entire young cast were on stage for the whole performance and director Emma Black cleverly ensured that they were an integral part of the action at all times. During sections when just a few cast members were delivering parts of the script, the rest of the cast were busy exploring boxes for props or reacting to the dialogue. Without exception the cast relished this opportunity and were engaged and acting throughout the entire performance. Sometimes this was a little too enthusiastic and the visual impact of some of the quieter moments may be enhanced by greater consistency of stillness, when appropriate.
The cast had clearly been rehearsed very thoroughly. Despite the busy stage, each member seemed to know exactly where to go, moving props as required to create various scenes. Particularly good use was made of boxes and chairs to build different height levels for the performers and to create a varied landscape. The action moved at a very brisk pace, helping to create a real sense of excitement about what we would see and hear next. It was clear that costume adjustments had been well practised – for example the boys had a tricky task of changing the function of their ties for different scenes. This was executed very slickly.
The setting of the piece gave more than a casual nod to traditional Gilbert and Sullivan productions, with many of the scenes set and acted in a very recognisable fashion. The traditional effect was further emphasised by the use of plenty of stage symmetry including the chorus standing in horseshoes, V shapes and holding picturesque poses at the end of songs. Similarly, the dance and movement featured the ubiquitous polka, box steps, side-steps, marches and a daisy-chain. However, there were unexpected elements too! Without giving too much away there were a couple of very impressive illusions that were expertly executed and left the audience agog. With a real attention to detail there was also a lovely moment when a couple of actors used a light and stencil to create shadows on the back wall for a particular song, helping to accord with the scenery with which the song is usually performed. The lighting, more generally, was used to very good effect, noticeably adjusting the mood for specific scenes. Just occasionally an actor at the extreme front of the stage was a little too far forward for the lighting and was in shadow.
Overall the acting ability of this young cast was of a very good standard, and included some exceptional performances. Given such a talented, able cast it was a little puzzling as to why the youth group did not carry the whole show. There was one adult in the cast, who took on a couple of roles – including the delivery of the patter song. Although he gave an outstanding, faultless performance, it seemed a little strange to cast in this way. The audience may have felt this to be a more consistent, complete creation if members of the youth company had been given the opportunity to deliver all the roles.
The creative way in which this piece has been written enables individual roles to be played by multiple members of the cast. At times copies of the score were passed from person to person, sometimes within the same song, with different people singing different verses. This generated an opportunity to display a wide range of vocal talents within the cast and also accorded with how schoolchildren in this scenario might behave. The approach worked remarkably well.
The script further enabled the show to race along, and it was pleasing that the variety of songs including solos, duets and chorus numbers, reflected the balance in the full operetta. There was, however, a short piece of script towards the start of the show which felt rather uncomfortable. The particular section involved the cast laughing at the concept of boys wearing skirts and the boys then proceeding to joke about with the costumes. This didn’t seem necessary and could benefit from review.
The audience experience may have been further improved if greater consideration had been given to the layout of the Greenside venue when setting the show. The staging appears to have been designed for a theatre with a traditional “end-on” stage. Unfortunately this created significant problems for audience members who were sitting along the sides of the stage, rather than directly in front. Very often the audience view from the side of the stage was blocked by the positioning of the chorus. Even if their view was not blocked, they frequently could only see the back of the actors, who directed their performance to the audience seated in front of the stage.
This show is likely to be far more enjoyable for people who know “The Pirates of Penzance” plot than for others and has probably been deliberately written with this group in mind. For audience members unfamiliar with the story, then the very brief explanation about Frederick’s age, and the final plot resolution (each covered in just a couple of sentences), would have been very unlikely to be understood – and much of Gilbert’s skill and wit would be overlooked. However, this is probably of little concern as there should be no shortage of the target audience for this show – both at the Fringe, and at the Harrogate International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival! For those in today’s audience who did know the story, glossing over the rapid improbable resolution was delivered in such a way as to be very funny.
In summary, this was a highly enjoyable, beautifully sung, fast paced and entertaining production, showcasing a very talented cast. The quality of the music and vocals was outstanding, with the glorious rendition of Hail Poetry being a highlight of the show. Gilbert’s lyrics once instructed: “Let the air with joy be laden, Rend with songs the air above” and today’s performance completely fulfilled that wish!
On December 10, 1879 it is said that Sullivan, while working on the Pirates of Penzance, wrote a letter to his mother in which he penned “I think it will be a great success, for it is exquisitely funny, and the music is strikingly tuneful and catching”. If Sullivan had been at today’s performance, he may well have said the same thing about Pirates Revisited!