Gilbert and Sullivan’s iconic ‘Pirates of Penzance’ exploded onto the stage of Woolloongabba’s Princess Theatre with all the joy and energy one could have expected from an opening night of a brand new musical. Lynch and Paterson have cleverly semi-staged this concert version and infused it with such life and vitality that audiences cannot help but be reminded of the other Australian revamp by Simon Gallaher. Arguably, there is much in this version that feels more modern, and of a higher standard than its predecessor, much to Lynch and Paterson’s credit.
Direction by Michael Nunn made excellent use of the space, and saw each character’s track emerge as nuanced and individual. Of particular note were the three sisters, each with clearly defined characterisation, and personality traits that were reflective in everything from the direction to the choreography (Kamara Hendricks).
One of the absolute highlights of the night was watching Lucas D Lynch working with his orchestra. A commanding conductor and fascinating to watch, even without the production unfolding around him. Lynch kept a tight rein on his orchestra, and had clearly drilled the talented cast well, as their harmony work was exceptional. Enjoying being a part of the action, and giving himself over fully to the nature of the semi-staged production, Lynch held the energy of the show at 100% until the very last note of the score had been wrung out.
As the King of Penzance’s Pirates, Nathan Kneen owned the stage with a wonderful mixture of swagger, wit, and deft comedic timing. Combined with an enviable vocal prowess that suited the role down to its foundations, he delivered a tour de force performance that had audiences falling in love with G&S all over again. From the moment he appeared lurking at the back of the set, to his continued banter with Lynch for control of the band, Kneen gleefully embraced the silliness of ‘Pirates of Penzance’ and gave us a King who was as camp as he was gruff.
Jack Biggs brought Frederic, the ‘Slave To Duty’, to life with all the swagger and sweep of the lead singer of a boy band. His tenor (with slightly more of a pop sensibility than one usually hears in the classical role) was bright and rang like a bell through the theatre. Biggs was a slightly cockier Frederic than many other incarnations, but this gave a sharper edge to his engagement with the other characters, bringing out jokes that felt fresh and nuanced.
As his foil Samantha Paterson’s Mabel was equally pointed, reining roughshod over her “siblings” and then deftly switching to a charm and warmth which endeared audiences to her effortlessly. If that was not impressive enough her crystalline soprano was a highlight of the show, showing off her vocal flexibility on the gymnastic-like cadenza that have made the role of Mabel iconic. Paterson has marked herself as one of Brisbane’s top performers and with this company as a vehicle behind her, audiences can expect more command performances like this one.
In the role of Ruth, Patricia Dearness was an absolute treat. Revelling in the aged crone-like character from start to finish, she brought a lovely balance to the production that might easily have been overlooked. It is also important to note that while Dearness played the part for everything it was worth, there was also a nice mixture of honesty set against the sly winks to the audience and guilty asides. This led to a rounded and nuanced performance that very nearly stole the show and ran away with it.
As the Major General beset upon by relatives he never knew but recently purchased, Grant Couchman was a jovial, simpering, eyebrow-raising delight. His work in the second half of the show, weeping over the family shrine, was hilarious, and if his ‘Modern Major General’ was not quite as brisk as it might have been, it was executed with more than enough finesse to get the audience swaying along with him
By far the best part of this production is the work of the three sisters Edith, Kate, and Isabel, played by Belinda Ward, Sophie Price, and Kayleigh Marven respectively. It does not go too far to suggest that their performances during ‘How Beautifully Blue The Sky’ and their utter delight at taking their shoes and stockings off was what made this production lock together and work where many others have become hum-drum and flat. Ward, Price, and Marven have such spectacular chemistry, and gave such masterful performances that if Lynch and Paterson’s next show was a revised version of ‘Pirates’ just about the three sisters – it should sell out in minutes.
A notable show highlight was Connor Hawkins in the role of Samuel, aide to the Pirate King. His chemistry with Kneen was fantastic and he made a meal of the space, physically throwing himself around it like a rag doll. Hawkins nailed the over the top energy and general affability that makes a character like that not just work, but stand out above the fray. Another in this shows litany of actors to watch, it is only a matter of time before Hawkins is strutting his stuff around far larger stages than the Princess has to offer.
Rounding out the principal cast, and by no means least, James Hogan as the Sergeant of Police brought a nervous, quiet terror to the role. Not playing the role as physically as it can be played, Hogan opted instead for a withdrawn, small physicality and a bumbling ineptitude that made the audience feel sorry for him. Indeed it is a surprise that there were no audible ‘awwws’ from the opening night crowd as the Sergeant pottered about the stage.
The small but energetic ensemble threw themselves fully into the production. Their physicality, commitment, and dedication to the show (in particular as the pirate crew) was exemplary. Every scene that the ensemble was in was lifted and helped to push forward the action of the principals.
For a semi staged production, the simple set design (Michael Nunn and Gary Winsen) added everything that it needed to add for the story to be told efficiently, and let the cast use the rest of the space with impunity. It was beautifully enhanced by Luke Broomhall’s lighting, which showed off the stunning Princess Theatre to the very best of its ability. Mix this in with the simple, but clean and well thought out costume design by Anita Sweeney and you have a perfect recipe for success.
The silent hero of the show (or not so silent as it turns out) was the sound design by Ben Murray. The balance was perfect, each of the singers was easily heard, if they were a soloist or singing a part in a larger ensemble number. The orchestra was equally well balanced against the vocalists, giving a full, rich sound and being comfortably loud when necessary – something that many sound designers have issues with. Murray’s design was flawless, start to finish.
Special mention must go to Aysa Flynn for her consistent high energy performance from the ensemble, she consistently was one to keep an eye on as the evening spun out. Additional nods must go to the life vest, making Biggs a little less dashing as he comically strapped himself in, and to the best used bucket of popcorn seen on a Brisbane stage in some time.
This bright, energetic production was a delight and left the entire audience beaming as they exited the theatre. It is a shame that it only ran for a single weekend. it deserves to be remounted for a much longer showing. It is the kind of clever, nuanced staging that will fit into any kind of venue, and will easily tour anywhere. Whatever Lynch and Paterson’s plan for ‘Pirates of Penzance’, it is clear that Brisbane is ready to lap up whatever they offer next.
‘Pirates of Penzance’ played at the Princess Theatre in Woolloongabba until Saturday 22 February, 2020. To keep up to date with the plethora of other projects that Lynch and Paterson will be staging throughout 2020 visit https://www.lynchandpaterson.com.
This article was edited by Benjamin Tubb-Hearne.