There are a thousand ways to put on The Pirates of Penzance, one of the most tuneful and well-loved G&S perennials. The Broadway version led the way for many years, leading to a trend to over-amplify and sometimes coarsen the piece, but Hinchley Manor Operatic Society have gone for a (mostly) traditional approach. It’s well-sung, deftly choreographed, and acted with a nice sense of the ridiculous.
Experienced director John Harries-Rees has ensured his cast are shown to their best, and he makes good use of the various playing levels on the comparatively large stage of the Hampton Hill Theatre – surely the most comfortable and welcoming amateur venue in south-west London.
Sarah Platt’s choreography greatly enhanced the chorus numbers in particular. However: another show, another anonymous orchestra – there seems to be quite a trend not just to hide the band away but to fail to list them in the programme either. First-time Musical Director Debbi Clark does well despite her exile in the wings, whether she is surrounded by a keyboard and pre-recorded tracks or a real band, but what happened to the overture? The G&S overtures are as well-loved as the operas and well-known as pieces in their own right; a few squawking seagulls and then straight on with the action makes for a tricky beginning.
Casting was strong, and also inventive in the case of the police force. With more female than male chorus members, and faced with a production which requires two male choruses, the director wisely chose to cast some of the ladies of the chorus as the police. Led by Steve Green as a confident Sergeant, they looked very funny and were greatly enjoyed by the audience, although their singing inevitably lost some of the effect that a contrast of voices can achieve. The pompoms looked rather out of place in Victorian Cornwall however.
The chorus work was sound throughout, even though pirates are obviously in short supply in Penzance these days, with only four to support the principal players, which included Alastair Lee as an ever-reliable and confident Samuel. Matt Brading’s well-sung Pirate King moved away from the usual heroic portrayal to present him as a more bumbling figure, although the sometimes heavy-handed humour took a while to get used to.
Howard Thompson’s Major-General certainly looked the part, and did his best with the patter songs, which are much more difficult to deliver than some might suppose and require actors to be absolutely word-perfect. I am sure this portrayal will develop in confidence as the week progresses.
On the distaff side, HMOS Chairman Lisa Guerriero provided the other unusual casting of the evening. Ruth is usually portrayed as one of W S Gilbert’s somewhat suspect roles for mezzos, the butt of all humour for her age, stature and behaviour. This was a rather dashing Ruth, however, totally at home among the pirates and looking as handy with a sword as they were, even if sounding as though she hailed from London rather than Cornwall.
As Mabel, Lucy Moon sang sweetly and acted well opposite George Lester’s Frederic. This was for me the performance of the evening, turning what can be one of the usual boring G&S tenor roles into the starring part; this was a confident and impressive portrayal, with some nice touches of humour.
The fairly basic but very functional set from Wesley Henderson-Roe, with some effective ruined arches for Act Two, is extremely well-lit by Richard Pike, with lighting changes also used to good effect during the songs.
Although there were no sound difficulties of the kind that sometimes bedevil shows using mics, I am at a loss as to why they were thought necessary in this small venue, even for the dialogue. This cast projected well and sang strongly; but the amplification of the rhubarbing from the chorus sometimes overpowered the individual dialogue.
Despite these small concerns, this was a highly enjoyable and well-directed production of a G&S perennial from HMOS, and I look forward to seeing them in a very different production when they present Legally Blonde in 2017.