Mary Woodward Review

Scottish Opera – pop-up Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore

***** (5 stars)

Sitting within my hula hoop in front of the grandstand, clad in wet weather gear and hoping the rain stays away, I stare at the trailer in which the cast will perform, glad that they at least are protected from the elements.  I’m looking forward to my first ever experience of Scottish Opera’s pop-up performances: I’ve wanted to see them for years, but they and I have never been able to be in the same place at the same time…

Looking around the audience, I see a fair number of grey heads, but there’s a fair sprinkling of younger people and children too, and I hope they get the same addiction to Gilbert and Sullivan that I had in my youth – we went to see the D’Oyley Carte company at the Savoy in London every year as our Christmas treat, and I’m very familiar with Iolanthe, the Mikado, and RuddigorePirates and Pinafore I know less well, so I’m looking forward to a rapid canter through both of them today.

A pirate arrives, carrying a cello in a case, followed by a similarly-clad guitarist: this must be the orchestra!  Another pirate and a young woman in a long white dress climb up into the trailer, with a young man not far behind – and there we have the cast of three: are they going to take on every part in this show? 

Audience participation is encouraged from the start as we learn to shout “Ahoy!” every time the cast shout “ahoy”, and to join in singing “aaarrrrrrr” whenever needed.  Our piratical storyteller launches into the plot – young Frederick is apprenticed by mistake not to a pilot, but a pirate, and on his twenty-first birthday leaves the Pirate King and sets off into the world.  Never having seen a woman before, he is quite agreeable to the idea of marrying his old nurse Ruth – until he sees the bevy of beauties that are the daughters of Major-General Stanley, and falls head over ears in love with Mabel.  Things get complicated when Frederick realises that, because his birthday is on February 29th, he is only five years old: meanwhile, the local police force arrive to try and capture the pirates, but eventually all is well and everyone [we hope] lives happily ever after…

As I’ve said, I don’t know the music of Pirates particularly well: I did recognise the policemen’s chorus with cat-like tread, and we had a snatch of Mabel’s poor wand’ring one right at the end, but it somehow felt as if the story was dominating the music,  [and in conversation with a friend later, who knew the piece well, was informed that the chorus play a very major part in the action – difficult with only two singers and occasional contributions from the narrator!].

Sadly, I’m unable to give the names of the extremely versatile soprano and baritone who swapped characters with consummate ease: there was no programme, and the Scottish Opera website gives three possible names for each singer for their tour of no less than five G&Ses.   The wonderfully lively and engaging storyteller must have been Katie Barnett [she couldn’t have been Allan Dunn, could she?].  The instrumental accompaniment was magnificent – I’d like to hear the whole show again just to see and hear exactly how it was done!  The cello must have been played by Laura Sergeant, but the guitarist could have been one of two men: so frustrating, as I’d love to be able to give credit where credit is due!

Happily, the rain held off for the whole performance and cast and audience both expressed their appreciation of being sung to by real live singers who were equally delighted to have a real live audience to perform to!

I returned in the much wetter afternoon for H.M.S Pinafore, and was delighted to accept the offer of a giant umbrella under which to shelter – the rain wasn’t stair rods, but it was persistent.  Thank goodness the musicians were fully sheltered and the cast were protected from the worst of the rain [did I notice the soprano clutching a furry hot water bottle to herself to mitigate the chill she must have been experiencing in her fairly flimsy long dress?]  The audience didn’t seem at all perturbed by the weather – someone had brought along a foil blanket – and had a lovely time laughing at the jokes and joining in with the songs, to the delight of the cast.

This time the theme was nautical, with lovely sailor costumes and a considerable number of hats…  Ralph Rackstraw is a lowly sailor aboard the HMS Pinafore, but he has the temerity to love Captain Corcoran’s daughter.  She is also being pursued by Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, ‘ruler of the Queen’s navee’, and in this age when social status really matters, Ralph’s prospects seem dim.  Buttercup, the bumboat woman who sells all sorts of extraordinary things to the ship’s crew, is equally hopelessly in love with the Captain… but in true G&S fashion, there’s a secret lurking – and when Buttercup reveals all, everyone is happily united – though the wicked Dick Dead-eye’s evil plan is, of course thwarted..

Our lovely narrator and cast once more got us engaged from the start: learning to react correctly to the various characters and joining in a lovely free-style Zumba session as we practised all our comments.  And then we were off!

This time there seemed to be a lot more music and a bit less narration, with many lovely melodies and a lot of humour.  I particularly appreciated the bit towards the end where our baritone had to juggle hats and be three, if not four, separate characters in rapid session – a delightful display of physical comedy. There was a wonderful cello obbligato during Captain Corcoran’s fair moon, to thee I sing, and many more opportunities to relish the singers’ versatility and the skill with which a whole orchestral score was played by two musicians.

Once again, the multi-talented cast were greeted with enthusiastic, if rather damp, applause, and it was time for everyone to pack up and go home.  As a life-long fan of well-done G&S I was extremely happy: I hope that the shows have also introduced younger people to the delights in their work – though I have to applaud Scottish Opera’s courage in ending the show with the chorus for he is an Englishman: is that a safe sentiment to applaud in these current troubled times???

I continue to be impressed with Scottish Opera’s determination to take opera to audiences who, for whatever reason, are unable to come to the big city to see a show.  The pop-up shows are a delight – and a tribute to the incredibly hard work of not only the musicians but also the backstage crew who make it all possible.  And now we have an autumn tour of Opera Highlights to look forward to: it’s coming to Musselburgh, to the Brunton, on Thursday September 16th – don’t miss it!

Mary Woodward,

Run ended but Tour Continues.

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