Are standards slipping at English National Opera? It’s one thing to rent the place out to Michael Grade in a slack period and smile and pretend to be nice when he casts Katherine Jenkins in a leading role.

But when you’re producing an in-house crowd pleaser, you might capitalize on the tremendous thirty-year success with The Mikado by raiding the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire a second time. Whereas the twenties-styled Mikado by Jonathan Miller still sparkles with wit and style, film director Mike Leigh has done surprisingly little with The Pirates of Penzance preferring to deliver it straight: no tweaks, no twerks, no tongue-in-cheek.

It makes for a cold and rather soulless evening as the simplicity of the production highlights both its age and its many flaws. Gilbert’s libretto might have had them rolling in the aisles in 1880 but as the surtitles confirm, the best jokes are laboured and most of the others fall dead flat. On a press night where the entire company didn’t really hit its stride until after the interval, Andrew Shore‘s Major General patter song was almost embarrassingly unfunny.  Although beautifully lit, Alison Chitty’s geometric set with cutout circles and triangles in solid colours looks like she’d spent a slow afternoon with the scissors and some samples from Paperchase.

The plot at least is laughable: at 21, Frederic is released from his pirate apprenticeship to ‘go straight’ and freed to marry Mabel, one of Major-General Stanley’s thirteen daughters. Then it’s discovered he was born on 29 February and won’t reach his release date until his actual 21st birthday, in 1940. It’s all to do with favouring duty over pleasure, almost an alien concept nowadays.

It’s also all been done so much better elsewhere, from the New York Public Theatre production in Central Park with Kevin Kiine as the Pirate King and Linda Rondstadt as Mabel, or Tim Curry and Pamela Stephenson at Drury Lane – to Sasha Regan’s all-male Pirates from the Union Theatre which deserves some sort of Queens’ Award for export having traveled all over the US and Australia.

Fortunately the singing is exemplary, especially the near-perfect pairing of young lovers Soraya Mafi and David Webb, and even if the jokes are mostly lost, Ashley Riches‘ Jack Whitehall-ish Pirate King and the resonant chorus of Policemen led by veteran bass John Tomlinson do their best to make up for it.




In repertoire until March 25