The Pirates of Penzance (Theatre Royal, Brighton)
With a string of hits in the 1970s, it is no surprise that Gilbert O’Sullivan should try his hand at writing a musical – but The Pirates of Penzance was very different to what I expected from the singer who stole the hearts of a music-loving nation with the likes of Clair, Get Down and Alone Again Naturally.
I thought the musical would have had someone like David Essex in it, because he wrote a musical about jolly goings-on aboard the Mutiny on the Bounty, but it didn’t which was a great disappointment to me, as I really liked him and his songs. I remember going to see him once in concert, and as he reached the climax of Lamplight all the lights went out, which was a weird coincidence! Or was that when I saw Robert Powell (who played Jesus on TV) in Black Coffee? It can’t have been because Robert Powell didn’t sing that song, though I could swear he whistled Gonna Make You a Star when he hid behind the drawing room blinds.
This production, which has been very successful so it’s being done again for people who didn’t see it the first time, tells a classic tale of pirates bold and maidens fair. In itself it was quite good, but I was very sad indeed when I realised none of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s original and best known songs were featured, though I detected shades of Ooh-Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day in one of the songs sung by Major General Stanley, taking time off from being the capital of the Falkland Islands.
Because all available actresses had gone off to do Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in London’s glittering West End, all the roles in Pirates had to be played by men. It was quite a clever idea because it showed how men are emasculated in modern theatre and society. They couldn’t afford proper costumes so they all went around in bedsheets made to look a bit like dresses, just like they did in The Sound of Music. No wait, that was curtains.
No matter how I tried (a little nod to fellow Gilbert enthusiasts there!) I couldn’t enjoy this show as much as I might have done had it indeed been the promised juke box style musical featuring Gilbert O’Sullivan’s greatest hits.
As so often happens, the seed of an idea is lost once too many people get their hands on it. I imagine in its first draft the show would have had lots of Gilbert O’Sullivan songs in it (like Beautiful, We Will Rock You and Mamma Mia featured popular songs made popular by the groups and individuals that sang them).
The trouble was, it didn’t have that authentic ring to it and if Gilbert O’Sullivan was dead he would be turning in his grave. I know he was supposed to be touring the UK around now, but the tour has been cancelled, so I suppose that has something to do with people complaining about Pirates. Perhaps he’s been made to walk the plank at some of the venues!
The story is all about Frederick the Great and how he joined a group of pirates because his nanny misheard and thought she was sending him to learn pilates. He only had a birthday every four years because he was born in a Leap Year and the law at the time was that if you didn’t open all your presents before midnight your life was forfeit. Only then could the handsome prince search the land for the person whose foot fitted the glass slipper.
I was really impressed because the musical director who was playing the piano came and sat right in front of me and I couldn’t believe how cleverly he tickled the ivories. They’d taken the first few rows out in the stalls because of this and a lot of people got confused and went to the wrong seats including someone who looked very much like Barbara Windsor, but on reflection it might have been Delia Smith.
All in all, then, I think true Gilbert O’Sullivan fans would have come away from the theatre feeling short-changed. It could all have been solved so easily: the character Mabel could have had the name Clair, and then it would have been straightforward for Frederick to sing to her. Likewise, the show could have ended with a rousing chorus of Matrimony, as all ended up happily ever after.