It’s difficult not to enjoy yourself watching Pirates of Penzance and this production from Durham is no exception, although it does occasionally feel like it’s trying to undo itself. The limitations of bringing a show to the Fringe mean that you cannot expect a full-blown orchestra and a chorus the size of Norway. Yet an uninspiring opening number from a three-quarter-dozen pirates accompanied only by a piano makes you realise how much vital these elements can be to G&S and how much more therefore you need to compensate for the lack of them.
The nine do try bravely to sing as if they were a cast of nineteen and produce some brilliant individual performances but never quite manage it as a whole. This could also be said for the show itself. The audience all seemed to have frequent volume problems for some of the songs, particularly the chorus numbers that need to be carried off with noise and energy. Instead these songs come off as a bit tired; perhaps this can be attributed to a mid-Fringe energy dip. But nothing can hide the fact that the voices of the nine cast members are simply not strong enough as a whole to make up for the lack of a proper chorus.
This is not to say that they are bad singers; indeed, there are some standout individuals. Elissa Churchill as Mabel takes most of the plaudits, but Lucy Oliver’s Ruth and Alex Humphries’ Pirate King also give strong performances, as does Natalie Goodwin’s Frederic. Here we meet another issue of the production – gender-swapping. Whilst an intriguing idea and interesting twist on a typically male-dominated G&S script, it doesn’t quite pay off and actually hinders the performance in parts. Bar the case of Frederic (usually played by a tenor), the voice types don’t quite work for the switches, most evident when three guys amusingly dressed as General Stanley’s daughters are forced to only mime along with the three girls. Already struggling from volume issues due to lack of numbers, one wonders whether this joke would have been better to be scrapped in place of double the cast members. With three male and six female actors, many play multiple roles which results in frequent awkward shuffling offstage mid-song when they think no-one’s looking.
A new verse in the Modern Major General about flyering on the Royal Mile is relatively amusing, if a bit tired and such can be said for the production as a whole. If you’re a G&S fan, you’ll have a pleasant hour and a half but don’t expect to be blown away unless a lot more energy is injected into the performance.