In 1985, the Queensland Performing Arts Centre opened with a blockbuster production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, which starred Jon English, Marina Prior and Simon Gallaher.
It returned to QPAC in 1994 (with Helen Donaldson replacing Marina Prior), with video and audio recordings ensuring its iconic status in Australian musical theatre. To celebrate QPAC’s 30th birthday, Harvest Rain, Queensland’s first professional musical theatre company, is bringing the pirates back to Brisbane- with Gallaher at the helm as director.
As Pirate King, Andrew O’Keefe (Deal or No Deal, Weekend Sunrise) admirably filled Jon English’s tight purple pants. He brought a roguish, boyish charm and excellent comic timing to the role. In fact, lines he improvised (or skilfully presented as improvisation), provided some of the biggest laughs of the evening.
Billy Bourchier and Georgina Hopson were delightful as the young lovers, Frederick and Mabel. Both recent graduates of the Queensland Conservatorium of Music’s musical theatre programme, Bourchier and Hopson created quiet moments of genuine tenderness (they give excellent ‘wistful stare’) and their voices soared through Sullivan’s demanding score. The tight execution of Callum Mansfield’s ensemble choreography contained fun, physical comedy (a special mention to the very elastic policemen and their Police Sergeant, Dean Vince).
Surprisingly, veteran performer John Wood (Blue Heelers) struggled in his role as the Major General. In his patter song, ‘I am the very model of a modern Major-General’, he forgot the lyrics a few times and sang slurred gobble-dee-gook until he got back on track. Patter songs rely on speedy and precise diction for their humour, so the moment was completely lost. Perhaps Wood was just having an off opening night.
Josh Macintosh’s set design was functional- it provided an interesting array of levels that were well incorporated into the flow of the production, although a little static. The set for the second act was flown in and awkwardly superimposed over the first. It was presumably designed so that you could see the beach (the first set) through the windows of the house in the second act, but the two sets did not quite match together.
While the energy and performance standard was high, as director, Gallaher has tried too hard to recreate his previous productions. So many of the jokes were played precisely as they were in 1994 (I can’t talk to the 1985 production, but I know the 1994 production back to front. It has figured prominently throughout my life)- to the extent that I found myself able to accurately predict precise intonation of dialogue, pauses and physical gags. Even costuming was very similar- in some cases identical. Billy Bourchier wore the exact costume Simon Gallaher wore all those years ago. For those not as familiar as I with the 1994 show, this will not be such a drawback. It is nonetheless disappointing that Gallaher did not use this opportunity to do something novel. Gilbert and Sullivan is designed to be updated, to remain irreverent and poke fun at societal norms and expectations, which it did in placed with updated references to politics and such.
Moreover, the score of Pirates is lush. It was also disappointing that Gallaher chose to retain from his earlier productions the slightly tinny, synthesised, 80’s pop music style for the female chorus (although individual performances were vocally excellent- this is a criticism of direction only). The style of comedy of the female chorus was also poorly directed- what was fun and a tad naughty back 20/30 years ago now seems dated and a little cheesy. A little nostalgia, especially in celebration of QPAC’s 30th birthday, is lovely, but the throwbacks to previous productions inevitably left this production in their shadow. However, standing alone, Harvest Rain’s Pirates was a fun night of timeless music, beautiful vocal performances and amusing piratical antics.
Pirate of Penzance played at QPAC’s Concert Hall March 19-22.