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Review: Pirates of Penzance

An excellent rendition of a classic operetta which is a wonderfully comedic affair


The impact of Gilbert and Sullivan on English theatre is hard to overstate. Their work on comedic operettas helped begin to shift music-based theatrical performances into the modern bombastic musical that still has a chokehold on theatre districts and public imagination to this very day, as hordes of Hamilton stans can attest to.

So whilst the Pirates of Penzance does have some of the shortcomings which work at the beginning of a great cultural shift will tend to do, it is still a very enjoyable show to see, and the Cambridge University Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s latest interpretation is an excellent rendition of this operetta. At its lows, it is able to get across its playful and comedic nature rather well, and at its highs is hilarious, captivating, and hard to not be enthralled by.

Any review of a musical cannot ignore the importance of the band, and the performances, directed and conducted by Drew Sellis, were astounding. From the flutes and clarinets helping to set the scene of the tropical and dangerous lands of the far reaches of Cornwall, to the plodding brass helping to convey the long, oafish arm of the law, these renditions of some of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most well-known pieces were a delight to hear and incredibly captivating.

Whilst there were some issues of the composition coming together with cast performances, particularly in terms of the volume of the band in relation to certain cast members, they generally came together incredibly well, creating incredible performances and brilliant moments for any audience member no matter their familiarity with the play or their love of musicals.

Sebastian Blout as Frederic and Sophie Ellis as Mabel [Image Credits: Tristan Selden]

Looking at some of these cast performances, they were on the whole astounding. Sebastian Blount as Frederic had an absolutely incredible voice, able to capture a range of tones from the comedic in his discussions about the hilarious coincidence of being born on a leap year, to the stoic and stalwart of being duty-bound to his pirate crew at all costs, and the devoted and adoring of his duets with Mabel. Sophie Ellis’ performances as the love interest were jaw-dropping, with the strength of her soprano being captivating and a highlight of the show, as she with almost casual confidence carried some rather difficult solo performances to some extremely dazzling heights.

Beyond the two leads, a character hard to ignore is Christian Longstaff’s Major General Stanley, in part for the iconic nature of the role itself, but not least due to how well Longstaff portrays it. Despite a technically weaker voice than the two leads, the difficult lyrical witticisms look as if they are simple English from Longstaff, who also sold his performance as the doddery, stuffy but well-meaning aristocrat in a way which was a delight for the audience to behold. Other performances of note were Peter Coleman’s oafish Sergeant of police, who brilliantly captures the doltish, yet well-intentioned policeman, Kate South as the overly seductive octogenarian Ruth, and Blair Martin, who was able to effectively capture the brash and loud, yet comedically pathetic pirate king.

Beyond the two leads, a character hard to ignore is Christian Longstaff’s Major General Stanley, in part for the iconic nature of the role itself, but not least due to how well Longstaff portrays it. Despite a technically weaker voice than the two leads, the difficult lyrical witticisms look as if they are simple English from Longstaff, who also sold his performance as the doddery, stuffy but well-meaning aristocrat in a way which was a delight for the audience to behold. Other performances of note were Peter Coleman’s oafish Sergeant of police, who brilliantly captures the doltish, yet well-intentioned policeman, Kate South as the overly seductive octogenarian Ruth, and Blair Martin, who was able to effectively capture the brash and loud, yet comedically pathetic pirate king.

The Major General lamenting his great lie [Image Credits: Tristan Selden]

Pirates of Penzance is a great show to see, particularly if you are a musical fan, with some absolutely breathtaking performances from the leads. Whilst there were certain moments of uncertainty from parts of the cast, and the occasional voice which would get lost in the band, the whole package came together excellently.

In a week which is relatively packed with musicals in Cambridge theatre, this one stands out for not only being different to what is often seen at the ADC, but for being an incredibly fun and lighthearted performance well worth the trek down to the West Road Concert Hall.

3.5/5

The Pirates of Penzance is showing on the 9th of February – 11th of February at 7:45 pm at the West Road Concert Hall with a 2 pm Matinee on the 11th. Book your tickets here.