Pirates of Penzance promised lots, and delivered little. A show that will leave more than just the pirates reaching for a rum bottle.
What the Pirates of Penzance promised was a ‘high spirited, hilarious adventure’. What it delivered was a ‘slightly confusing adventure,’ that felt like you sailed the seven seas and failed to find treasure.
It’s worth saying that for a Youth Production, many of the cast did very well. There was a lot of energy delivered on stage, and they clearly loved what they were doing. There were also a couple of standout performances, such as ‘King of the Pirates’ played by Theodore James, who had a good vocals and great charisma. He bought his own vivacity and was believable as the mishap (and slightly camp) king. I sort of hoped he would have an emotional “I’m coming out” section in the second half, but alas, he did not. There was also some stunning vocal performances from Suzanne Poole, who showed promise to be an acting star in the future. I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw her headline a much bigger and more polished production, perhaps even in the West End. The cast overall has some young potential we could see again in coming performances.
The main problems were not to do with the performers however, but the concept of the play as a whole. Also strange was the choice to produce it via Youth Theatre. Putting what is essentially Pirates of the Caribbean on stage, with less character and drama, was always a weird concept; made even more confusing by Shakespearean dialogue. It neither reflects the language of today, or the late nineteenth century in which they play was set (unless they mistook the late Victorian period for the Elizabethan one). The Shakespearean language caused two major problems. The first was that parts of the play became increasingly hard to follow as the language made little – to no – sense. I’m a Tudor historian, used to this type of language, and was left struggling to follow the plot’s intentions. This was also reflected with the younger members of the audience, who seemed bored. The second issue was it constantly felt like the cast themselves did not understand their words. While they impressively remembered all of them, it seemed like they were just spouting dialogue with little conviction at times. A whole section revolved around ‘the paradox’ and I was less than convinced that any of the cast understood what a paradox was (hint: it’s a situation that seems impossible to be true but you can’t diagnose exactly why it is false).
The language choices also gravely affected the diction of the cast at several points – which meant alongside not being able to understand the dialogue, you also could not hear it. This was specifically prominent during the Major General’s leading song, where the only words I managed to decipher were ‘model of a modern major general’. The struggle with diction was also not helped by many of the songs being made into big choral numbers, with simply too many bodies on stage. I understand they wanted to get as many members involved as possible, but it ended up becoming an inaudible, unorganised mess. The whole concept of the play was also just uninteresting: a pirate is released from serving a gang on his 21st birthday, only to find he has to return to them as he was born on a leap year. There was just nothing gripping in the storyline that made you want to find out what happened next. Understandably this is more a critique of Sullivan’s original script than this production, but they could have done something to liven it up; for example introducing more interactive elements to keep the audience entertained and engaged. Albeit, there were small attempts to do this, with some of the cast using the aisles when dancing or moving around. Unfortunately, this did not have the desired effect. As an another audience member said to me, it simply ‘woke you up a little bit’ before drifting you back off.
Other elements of the production were slightly better. The staging was good, and a lot of effort had gone into the set creation – including a fully functioning pirate ship. Lighting was also used effectively and there was a nice use of spotlight during the emotional vocal moments. However, this did not save the play from feeling pantomime-esque: though instead of happily ever after, you’ve eaten the poison apple in Snow White and not been woken up by the Prince.
Sadly, the whole performance failed to deliver. This wasn’t down to the energetic and well-rehearsed cast, but rather the odd concept, dull script, questionable production value and wacky language. After this performance, you feel like it’s not just the pirates who need a double rum!
Pirates of Penzance was performed at the Mayflower Theatre from the 5th-7th August.