‘Pirates of Penzance’ was raucous.
A rollicking band of pirates descended on the Ipswich Civic Centre this weekend for Ipswich Musical Theatre’s latest masterpiece ‘The Pirates of Penzance’. Iconic tunes, LED screen set pieces and a stellar cast left audiences in fits of laughter and humming ‘Modern Major General’ all the way home.
The widely known and loved patter of the ‘Pirates of Penzance’ was gifted to theatre lovers in 1880 with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W.S. Gilbert. Since the show has become creative commons, many iterations of the cult classic production have been mounted. Ipswich Musical Theatre opted to perform the version made famous by Simon Gallaher, which veers away from the operatic styles in the original score. Gallaher infused rock music with the classical sound, making for a very different theatrical experience. However, despite the musical differences, the hilarity and the absurd plot remain the same.
Having just reached his 21st birthday, Frederic (William Toft) leaves the Pirates of Penzance to find new adventures. His escapades land him with a bevy of beautiful maidens and he soon meets the love of his life, Mabel (Melissa Bird). The only problem is, the Pirates have also happened upon the daughters and their bumbling father, the Major General (Adrian Carr). What follows is a lot of confusion around the words orphan and often, some very afraid police officers, swooning girls and a story that captures the heart as much as it baffles the head.
Director Thomas Armstrong-Robley and Assistant Director Taylah McLennan did a commendable job of stylising the production and ensuring all elements melded seamlessly. The absolute hero of the set and technical design was the floor to ceiling LED screens that formed the backdrop, engineered by Owen Forsyth. When you have an enormous video screen at your disposal, the temptation is to make every moment an LED screen moment, but Armstrong-Robley opted for the screens to fade into the background while the on-stage action shined. Act I saw a rock and ocean formation while Act II darkened the mood in the Major General’s castle. While video elements were well executed, it would have been nice to see some subtle animation in the enormous backdrop as opposed to the static design.
The sublime tech design was completed by lighting design by Forsyth. The technical elements were operated without a hitch, cues were nailed and each lighting plot aided the storytelling. One particular lighting highlight was during ‘Climbing Over Rocky Mountain’ when the lights quickly changed to psychedelic colours as the rock tunes made their first appearance. This juxtaposition helped make sense of the stark musical contrasts and the lighting theme continued throughout the production.
Follow spots can be easily overlooked when they are executed well. Joshua Keidge, Jaspah Eastwell, Ethan Rowlanson and Zephyr Burns allowed the effect of the follow spot to fade into the distance. At no point did it veer off course and the operation team should be commended for the effective execution. Rounding out the technical elements, sound design by Murray Keidge was well balanced and crisp. No one was overpowered and the relatively small cast filled the large auditorium.
Alongside every great performer in the production was the equally skilled wardrobe team. Mary Slattery as Head of Wardrobe, Miriam Gillham in the sewing team and Delma Odger as Wig/Hair Styling and Makeup created a tapestry of colour and energy. The sisters were a particular highlight with intricate and professional costumes and wigs. There was a level of professionalism throughout the whole production and the costumes wholly supported this standard.
It’s a little concerning when the director and lead cast member are the same person, but Armstrong-Robley seemed to do a good job of finding a balance between the two roles with assistance from McLennan. There was clear direction throughout the production with effective blocking and consistent movement that kept audiences engaged and furthered the plot. Armstrong-Robley as the Pirate King had the vocal chops, movement and charisma to boot as the iconic Pirate King. However, there were moments when improvisation lost its comedic timing and dragged on for too long. For an otherwise perfectly paced show, these moments clearly stuck out and could have been reigned in. That being said, a particular improvised highlight was between Armstrong-Robley and Carr. Both actors are clearly skilled in their own right and their energies bounced perfectly off each other, creating moments of absolute hilarity.
Choreography by Simon Lind was dynamic and well suited to the energetic show and Musical Direction by Robert Clark was similarly well-executed. Both highly skilled practitioners demonstrated their understanding of storytelling with clear dynamics and interest. A vocal highlight was ‘Hail Poetry’ which was skillfully blended and soared over the audience.
Frederic can be a challenging character to balance with difficult vocal parts, dramatic text and an incredible amount of time in the spotlight. Toft was the perfect pick for this role and took every challenge in his stride. He delivered a near-perfect vocal performance and found the balance between swooning lover and comedic relief with adept skill.
Alongside Toft was the ever-sweet Bird as Mabel. While Bird could have explored Mabel’s sassy side a little more, she had a bell-like voice and captured hearts with her wholesome disposition.
In stark contrast to Mabel, her six sisters were all levels of sultry sass, each with an eye on the pirates. While harmonies occasionally wavered, the vocals were impressive and each actress handled the challenging score and stylistic changes with skill.
Carr as the Major General was a cast highlight with perfect comic timing and even better patter. Carr rattled off COVID-themed verses in his ‘Modern Major General’ number and had the audience asking for more.
Louis Dooner was a hilariously energetic Sergeant of Police with the vocal chops to support his dynamism. Susan Glosko delivered a wonderfully loveable Ruth and the whole lead cast was supported by an equally talented ensemble.
There’s a reason why the cast reprised ‘Cat Like Tread’ three times and still left the audience cheering for more. Pirates of Penzance was a triumph with the quality of a professional production. While the rock fusion score isn’t for everyone, Ipswich Musical Theatre handled the challenge and gave audiences a performance to remember.
‘Pirates of Penzance’ performed their last show on Sunday, 19 September at the Ipswich Civic Centre. For future seasons visit the Ipswich Musical Theatre website.