Monday, July 01, 2019

The Pirates of Penzance – what happens when a sense of duty is taken to extremes (The Belfast Ensemble at Lyric Theatre)

When the conductor/ director tells the audience to feel free to hum along with any tunes they recognise, you know it’s a relaxed performance for both those on stage and the punters in the stalls who can afford to sit back and enjoy and evening of entertainment.

Coming at the end of The Belfast Ensemble’s Bash weekend that showcased two of their previous works and premièred another, the gala concert performance of The Pirates of Penzance allowed the cast, orchestra and crew to let their hair down at the same time as demonstrating their ability to work with a larger number of players, chorus and line-up of singers.

There’s still something deeply political about Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1880 democratising opera, despite its comic overtones and a much-parodied tune.

The ludicrous set-up is that a band of pirates are up to no good off the coast of Cornwall. Having been accidentally signed up to life on the high seas by his beautiful nursemaid Ruth, Frederic has turned 21 and is at the end of his apprenticeship and able to escape from the motley crew of soft-hearted bandits who draw the line at ravishing orphans. Frederic is rejected by a group of young women he stumbles over on a beach, all except Mabel, one of the Major-General’s daughters.

As well as sending up the establishment, much is made of people’s strong sense of duty that leads them to follow through with obviously poor decisions. It certainly has a contemporary flavour.

Darren Franklin gifted his warm tenor voice to Frederic and was well-matched by soprano Rebecca Murphy’s bright and giddy Mabel, particularly in a moment of duet in Act II. Matthew Cavan added to the overall absurdity by giving the Pirate King a waxed chest, while Tony Flynn may not have been as tall in stature as most Major Generals, but he certainly brought a fine comic style and powerful voice to his performance and made the best known song of the show his own with an enthusiastic and tongue-twisting solo.

Playwright Marie Jones made her opera debut and showed off her deep and husky voice as the Chief of Police. Standing beside her, Ciara Mackey demonstrated her versatility (The Young Pornographers, April 2019; The Jazzabelles, April 2018; Spamalot, October 2017) playing Kate, alongside sister Edith (Marcella Walsh). Gavin Peden played pirate Samuel.

Behind these nine soloists stood two rows of singers making up the chorus of pirates and young women. A 14-strong orchestra, conducted by Conor Mitchell, powered their way through the two-act performance, with leader and first violist Clare Feehan rarely getting a moment’s rest in the busy score.

The Lyric’s sound engineer Ian Vannard could be a virtual member of The Belfast Ensemble with his sympathetic mix that amplified the orchestra with its sampled percussion, while keeping the soloists in front of the chorus. It’s the kind of show where any element could have drowned out another, but that was never close to happening last night.

Despite the limited rehearsal time, the costumed soloists and chorus went beyond merely singing their parts and injected plenty of acting, gestures and pouting into their roles. The Ensemble’s trademark projection was very simple and abbreviated, though still images might have eliminated all distraction from the on-stage fun.

A great ending to a strong weekend of performances that celebrated the last two years of The Belfast Ensemble’s work, and send them off to the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre on Sunday 7 July, before heading up to Hull on Saturday 13 as part of the New Music Biennial.

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