REVIEW: ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ – GASP

Not a single person more could have been crammed onto the stage at Bembridge Village Hall for GASP’s inaugural production of Pirates of Penzance. Performed by a cast from a range of theatrical and musical backgrounds, and playing to full houses, it was resounding proof, if ever it was needed, that Gilbert and Sullivan’s works have yet to lose their charm.

A ‘comic operetta’, Pirates of Penzance hits somewhere between an opera and a pantomime; written in the late 19th century, the story follows Frederic, a young man released from his indentures with the titular pirates on what he thinks is his 21st birthday…except it turns out he was born on a leap year, so they therefore demand another 63 years of service.

Frederic was played by Rob Bingham, whose rich vocal performance – and stamina – was in a league of its own: when he opened his mouth to sing, everyone listened.  Opposite him was Hanna Emily Nixon as love interest Mabel, whose comedic touches made the role feel fresh.

With a cast of well-known Island talent, including John Abraham as The Pirate King, Mike Palette as Samuel, Dianne Aspinall as Ruth, Bryony Bishop as Edith, Libby Pike as Isabel, and Abbi Leverton as Kate, the supporting roles were in very safe hands. It was great to see John Abraham back on the stage, and Libby Pike proved that you can in fact steal a scene with a single hiccup, whilst every time Bryony Bishop appeared it was impossible not to be utterly engaged.

The chorus, made up of Major General Stanley’s Daughters, Pirates and Policemen, seemed to have a whale of a time with some of G&S’ best-known tunes, and the ‘Sitting Chorus’ gave some extra weight to the sound. The orchestra, meanwhile, proved that you don’t need to be big to make an impact, and the balance between vocalists and musicians was consistently good.

One of the show’s highlights was the bumbling police force, headed by Barry Aspinall as the Sergeant of Police, whose entrance to a chorus of ‘Tarantara’ (‘When The Foreman Bares His Steel’, to use its full title!) brought belly-laughs from the audience. Whilst the whole force was excellent, mention must be made of Ruth Anderson and Amanda Gregory for their frankly brilliant facial expressions.

Arguably the most famous song in Pirates of Penzance is ‘I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General’, and Paul Stevens did not disappoint. The patter is quick, and well-known, and with that comes a pressure to deliver!

Another memorable moment was ‘How Beautifully Blue The Sky’, which thanks to Bingham, Nixon and the Chorus of Daughters was delightfully entertaining, and ‘When You Had Left Our Pirate Fold’ was equally so.

The pantomimic and operatic elements are clear throughout, but particularly in the final scene, in which all the loose ends are tied up by way of a sudden and convenient plot device, whilst singing a medley of themes, including gorgeous reprise of ‘Poor Wand’ring Ones’.

Directed by Andrew Wilson-Jenner, with Steve Burton as Musical Director and Ruth Anderson as Choreographer, Pirates of Penzance was an enjoyable and fitting first production for this new troupe of G&S enthusiasts.

It is comforting to know there is still a place for G&S in the world of modern theatre, and for as long as groups like GASP are willing to give those shows a chance, that place will remain set for these two remarkable composers.

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