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The Pirates of Penzance review at Coliseum, London – ‘delights the ear’

Ashley Riches, Andrew Shore and ENO Company in The Pirates of Penzance at London Coliseum. Photo: Tom Bowles
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When this English National Opera production premiered in 2015, critical opinions were far from unanimous, with the Evening Standard’s Barry Millington, for instance, declaring, “the production has little going for it.”

The Stage said it was “delightful” and the public voted with their feet: between the Coliseum run and subsequent ENO Screen, Sky Arts and radio broadcasts, it reached over 307,000 people.

This mostly re-cast staging of 16 performances allows that audience to expand again, though it is likely to divide people. On the one hand, debutant opera director Mike Leigh and his designer Alison Chitty have created an abstract world of geometrically shaped, brightly coloured panels that do little to delight the eye.

But the joy of the show, with conductor Gareth Jones at the helm, is just how much it delights the ear. It’s not just the waltzing playfulness of Sullivan’s enchanting score or the wicked intricacy of WS Gilbert’s lyrics that are an enduring pleasure, but also the verve and delight of the orchestra, principals and chorus in putting them across. Soroya Mafi brings a shimmering coloratura soprano to Mabel, and is ideally partnered by the dashing David Webb who has an effortless vocal lyricism as Frederic, the man she falls in love with.

Elsewhere luxury casting abounds among the seniors: the Sergeant of Police is playfully taken by ENO veteran John Tomlinson, tufts of white hair spilling from his helmet; Lucy Schaufer brings her radiant vocal colours to the desperate Ruth; and Andrew Shore is in full command of the tongue-twisting declaration to being the very model of a Modern Major General. They are an unalloyed delight.

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Revival of Mike Leigh's production that delights the ear, if not the eye