|The Pirates of Penzance > Reviews > E Company at Portsmouth
"The Pirates of Penzance"
A crowded house, as a matter of course, witnessed the first production in Portsmouth of "The Pirates of Penzance" at the Theatre Royal on Easter Monday, and from the very rise of the curtain it became evident that Messrs. Sullivan and Gilbert were to be as popular with a provincial as they had previously been with metropolitan audiences. Throughout two long acts the interest of the spectators or listeners never flags, and it was with a sigh of regret rather than of relief that the somewhat hurried ending was witnessed.
The general effect being so good and so unmistakable, there is, in truth, little need for detailed criticism. It has been asserted that both author and composer, more especially the former, have followed in "The Pirates" the "lines" which have proved so successful in "Pinafore," and no doubt this is the case to some extent; but with such exquisite workmanship before us it would be positively criminal to indulge in cavilling. The humour of the piece is as light and rippling as that of the "Pinafore," and just as inverted. It is full of quaint conceits, and we seem to see the world not so much through a magnifying glass as upside down.
The opening scene is the pirates’ den on the rockbound coast of Cornwall. The pirates are picturesque villains, as a matter of course, but they are also ridiculously tender-hearted – at least on one point. Orphans themselves they are full of pity for all who are in the same parentless condition; and as every ship’s crew they capture appears to be composed of fatherless sailors, the humanity of the pirates plays havoc with the profits of their profession. This is pointed out to them by Frederic, an apprentice, who imagines that he will be free of his indentures at midnight, and who frankly informs the King that, his freedom once gained, he means to exterminate the lot. Frederic was originally brought to the pirates by his nurse Ruth, who thus accounts for the blunder she made:–
She did more than this. To keep near her precious charge she turned a pirate maid of all work, and as Frederic approached his majority she wanted to marry him. The apprentice has never seen any other woman, and he asks Ruth to tell him candidly how she is compared with the rest of her sex, and her answer is so satisfactory that Frederic is on the point of consenting to be made happy when a chorus of girls’ voices close at hand suddenly surprised the reluctant lover and sends Ruth in a rage off the stage. The voices are those of Major-General Stanley’s daughters, and as they swarm into the foreground we cannot help suspecting that the gallant officer must have committed quadrigamy at the very least to be blessed with such a numerous progeny. Not only are the young ladies vocalists, they are all beauties as well – at least their papa says so – and the scene becomes very lively when the pirates suddenly pounce down upon them and insist upon having a bride apiece. The King, indeed, seems partial to a couple, and as the demoiselles themselves do not appear to be very particular, perhaps nobody else has any right to protest. Both sides are so charmed with the impromptu arrangement that they break out into song:
It is quite time that papa should appear upon the scene, and accordingly he comes down like an avalanche, introducing himself in a patter song beginning:
The General by no means relishes the piratical designs upon his daughters, and on hinting as much the incensed sea robbers are about to despatch him, when he pleads – with the usual result – that he is an orphan! The first act closes upon the General retiring with his progeny, the pirates dancing with delight, while their King waves aloft the black banner with the typical death’s head and cross bones.
The second act discloses a ruined chapel by moonlight, with the silvery sea glimmering in the background, and it really forms a very effective picture. This one-time chapel of ease has become the General’s by purchase, and he not unnaturally claims the ancestors whose bones repose within the weather-stained structure. The pirates, unable to make both ends meet at sea, have turned burglars, and they are about to make an attempt upon the General’s house, seeking a hiding place in the ruins. In blissful ignorance of their proximity, half-a-dozen policemen enter, headed by a comical sergeant, and the singing and acting here really form the great hit of the piece. The make-up of the force was admirable, not forgetting the exasperatingly creaking boots, while their two songs are the very quintessence of burlesque humour. They are harangued by the General in a style suggestive of the "stump oration" of the Christy Minstrels, and that veteran warrior has only just retired when the pirates rush upon the police, whom they quickly put hors de combat. Fortunately the sergeant is equal to the emergency, and just as things are becoming desperate for the cause of law and order, he wins the battle at a stroke by charging the pirates yield "in Queen Victoria’s name." This they do at once, and the irate Major-General would have quickly handed them over to summary justice when Ruth arrests him with the long deferred explanation: –
"What all?" exclaims the general, "Well nearly all," retorts the Pirate King, whereupon the General indulges in this argumentative recitative,
Such is the comic story which Arthur Sullivan has wedded to appropriate music. In its choral and orchestral effects "The Pirates" may fairly claim to rank with the "Pinafore," but there are undoubtedly fewer airs in it of the popular and street-organ sort. The madrigal "O leave me not to live alone and desolate" is simply exquisite, and will doubtless become a favourite in the drawing-room and concert room.
The whole performance was so effectively rendered that we shall content ourselves by simply giving the cast as it appears in the programme: – Major-General Stanley, Mr. W. Greyling; the Pirate King, Mr. George B. Browne; Samuel (his Lieutenant), Mr. F. Federici; Frederic (the Pirate Apprentice), Mr. James Sydney; Sergeant of Police, Mr. H. Cooper Cliffe; Mabel (General Stanley’s daughter), Miss Ethel McAlpine; Kate, Miss Constance Snow; Edith, Miss Grosvenor; Isabel, Miss Hutchinson; Ruth (a Piratical Maid of all Work), Miss Fanny Harrison. We have only to add that "The Pirates" is preceded by a very amusing operetta entitled "Six and Six," the scene being laid in a matrimonial agency.
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