The Pirates of Penzance

Date 15th February 2023
Society Godalming Operatic Society
Venue Borough Hall, Godalming
Type of Production G&S
Director Ian Henderson
Musical Director David Wright


Author: Pauline Surrey

Pirates is Gilbert and Sullivan’s fifth collaboration. Due to a lack of copyright laws at that stage in America, they decided to hold the world premiere in New York in 1879. A few months later it premiered in London, ran for 363 performances, and has been one of their most popular operas ever since. It was aptly subtitled ‘The Slave of Duty’.

Young Frederic was indentured to a  pirate mistakenly as a child due to his nursemaid Ruth mishearing her instructions, which were to apprentice him to a pilot. Now 21, Frederic is free of his obligations, only having stayed with the pirates out of a sense of duty. This sense of duty means that he now intends, despite his affection for them, to work towards their extermination. In his 21 years the only woman he has set eyes upon is his comely 47 year old nursemaid Ruth, who aims to marry him. When he does set eyes upon a bevy of beautiful maidens, he shuns Ruth.

Godalming Borough Hall is a charming venue with spacious bar and raked seating which gives everyone a good view of the stage. The Front of House staff ensure a very warm welcome.

As always with GOS, we were treated to an excellent, well-designed programme. As well as a note from the President, and Director, Musical Director and cast profiles, we were given a good synopsis and the useful list of musical numbers. A page of the history of the Society – not long until its centenary, I notice, - included super photos of its previous productions of Pirates. There was also a welcome group photo of its splendid chorus members. We were given a potted history of Penzance, a piece of the Cornwall County Constabulary wondering why Gilbert chose Penzance rather than Bristol for example, and a very jolly and informative piece on untangling pirate fact from fiction, and even a Pirate Quiz.

A beautiful rocky Cornish cove provided the setting, later some ruined arches provided the scene where the depressed Major General quietly contemplates the lie he told the pirates. Some vicious looking pirate weapons, swords, cutlasses and pistols were in evidence that were able to do strange things to a policeman’s truncheon, and a marvellous basket of coronets appeared for the final scene. The set was evocatively and effectively lit, all very atmospheric.

The pirates were a joy to behold in their amazingly colourful outfits of striped trousers, all different colours, and gay jerkins. The Pirate King looked amazing in his Charles II locks and huge skull and crossboned hat. He had a bright blue shirt and black jerkin, and of course wonderful boots. The maidens were all prettily clad in diverse dresses of various colours, and later in voluminous white nightgowns and caps. Ruth looked very ordinary in the first half, but absolutely resplendent in stunning red and black in the second, once she had become a  pirate in her own right. The Major General absolutely looked the part in his smart red uniform and plumed hat, yet later looked very vulnerable in his nightgown and cap.

Musical direction of the singers, soloists and 22-piece orchestra was in the very safe hands of David Wright. No microphones nor amplification was used, which I must say these days is very refreshing.

The lusty pirates burst onto the stage in their colourful array of costumes singing ‘Pour, oh pour, the pirate sherry’, said sherry being poured by a confident and charming Samuel (Joel Parkinson). We thus knew immediately that we were in for a splendid Godalming Operatic treat, sorely needed after a 2 year enforced absence! Oh how lovely it was to be back in Godalming Borough Hall for this annual delight again. There certainly did seem to be a renewed vigour in this performance, the cast were obviously also enjoying being back. This, coupled with the fact that there were many fresh faces in the chorus, as well as many well-known and loved ones, meant there was a definite buzz in the Hall.

Ruth set the scene for us very nicely with ‘When Fred’ric was a little lad’ and I enjoyed the way the pirates all gathered round her to listen to her account very attentively, moving with her from side to side of the stage. This was a strong performance from Alexandra Lawrence, with a great change in character from the first to second half, where she was a far more feisty accepted member of the pirate gang. Simon Wilson made a glorious Pirate King, and as always delighted us with his vocal prowess. Jonathan Lo gave a fine performance as Frederic – bringing out his character enormously well, I felt, in all its nuances; the innocent, the deceived one, the romantic smitten one, and of course above all, the man of duty. I really believed in him, he was a joy to watch.

The humour was brought out very well in this performance. For example, the use of the red kerchiefs to mop up the pirates’ tears whenever the word ‘orphan’ cropped up. The use of huge picnic blankets to hide the maidens’ modesty as they removed their shoes and stockings for their paddle.

At one stage Edith (Marina Turner) and Kate (Zoe Avern) gave a very fine rendering of ‘We’ll gather lilacs in the Spring again’, which although nothing to do with G and S, nevertheless seemed perfectly charming and tugged at the heartstrings.

Katie Plummer proved an excellent Mabel, with good acting skills and in fine voice. Major General Stanley was well-played by Tim Dutton, who not only gave a super ‘I am the very model of a modern Major General’, but also made very plain his feelings of self-disgust at his lie to the pirates, and his fear of being left alone, if all his daughters were to marry them.

The Sergeant of Police was a superb performance by Richard Arthur, and of course the entrance of the policemen’s chorus was as always a joy, nigh on impossible to prevent oneself tapping a foot to ‘When the foeman bares his steel’ and ‘When a felon’s not engaged in his employment’.

Director Ian Henderson is to be congratulated on a lively, energetic Pirates full of vim and zest, that nevertheless allowed nuances of character and feeling to come through. The Hall rang with glorious and joyful sound, there was excellent use of the stage and some lovely ‘stage pictures’, great characterisation, and good comic timing. It was obvious from the lively audience reaction that this was a great return to G and S in Godalming!