All the last few posts and all our adventures in Wonderland have only been the cover and the title page; now at last we are beginning Chapter One of the Great Festival which no one outside of Buxton has seen; which goes on forever, or at least three weeks; in which every chapter is better than the one before, until we find the best show of all, and then it's all downhill from there.
And we're opening with a bang. A pro Pirates seems promising; at its worst, Pirates is unmemorable, and a crack team of expert performers with a good few rehearsal hours can hardly produce an unmemorable show. As indeed proved to be the case; I've been accused in these reviews of being too bland, of having no room for enthusiasm of the excellent, but perhaps I can show that this does not have to be true.
Two general notes that were true of many points in the show. Firstly, two follow spots were used. Since that's my most usual position in G&S back home, I naturally took some note of them. Aside from the obvious insolubles of spotting (like dealing with Fred, Pirate King, and Ruth, with only two spots; or similarly, the Major General, Fred, and Mabel, in the opening of the second act - not sure why she was spotted though), their work was superb all through. The lights came down for the songs and the spots came up; at the end of the song, the spots go out and the lights come up. Not everything has to be "imaginative" or "unique" to be effective. My second note could have been written over a dozen times... Precision! It's in the head movements, the fan movements (spelling out "DEATH", "GLORY", "GRAVE", and so on - I'll let you guess which scene), the dance steps of the police... everyone is synchronized. That takes a LOT of drilling and practice, a lot of work; and it shows. This is how to lift a frequently-performed show from "yeah okay it was a decent Pirates" to "This is a show you need to see, and fortunately there's a matinee tomorrow". Which there is. So if you're reading this promptly after I write it and you just happen to be in Buxton with nothing to do, swing by and see if there are any tickets left.
It's good to be back in Buxton, and see people I've not seen in a while. Amy Spruce, playing Isabel, is someone I've had the pleasure of working with back in Australia - and here as well, as it happens - and am never sorry to renew the acquaintance of. Pity Edith (Amy Payne) and Kate (Nichola Jolley) were picking on her for her mermaid comments; I don't know if I can in good conscience compliment them for being so cruel, but they did do a good job of it. :) Edith seemed to feel forever in the shadow of her sister Mabel (Alexandra Hutton), with a highly competitive "chook bit" in the second act finale. All of them great at the comedy; Mabel also gives us a beautiful rendition of "Ah leave me not to pine", sharing a dark stage and two spots with her beloved Fred (Nicholas Sharratt), in a lovely scene that provides a proper contrast to the bouncy cheeriness of the rest of the opera. Of course, it's that very cheeriness that makes the show so much fun, right from the opening where Fred's release-from-servitude party is being celebrated with well-loaded tables (which, as we discover later, can be collapsed just like modern tables). Ham acting is of course the order of the day, as clearly demonstrated by te whole opening scenes - Freddie, Samuel (Louis Dall'Ava), and of course the Pirate King (John Savournin), who I believe had to direct himself very strongly to ham it up more. And of course, when it comes to hamming and making a good job of it, the G&S patter roles are great vehicles; the Major General (Richard Gauntlett) knows how to handle himself. There were a few odd in-jokes and fourth-wall-breakings, but his song still made perfect sense even if you don't know G&S, as evidenced by the gentleman sitting near us who apparently wasn't familiar with the operas, and was laughing a'plenty. And if anyone can eclipse the Major-General, it would be the Sergeant of Police (Bruce Graham) and his band of merrie men, who gave such a song-and-dance that everyone was laughing, even the self-confessedly jaded G&S veteran who's seen Pirateses for half a century. And Ruth, your own Ruth (Sylvia Clarke), whom you love so well, and who keeps catching herself on realising she's just put her foot in her mouth again... what is to become of her? Quite simple: She disappears off stage and gets hold of a copy of Debrett's Peerage, in which it's clearly demonstrable that the Pirate King is... well, we don't get to see that part, but it justifies her statement that they're noblemen.
These excellent principals are backed by a similarly excellent chorus or three, which - as mentioned above - were well synchronized - and in great voice. And the technical aspects of the show maintained a similarly high standard. The follow spots followed the right spots, the lighting lit the stage and set the mood, and the sound effect was aptly placed. Oh, I didn't mention that? Just as the Major-General gets his wonderful idea about pretending to be an orphan, the audience is alerted to its arrival by an audible 'DING'!
Myriad little bits and pieces added up make an awesome show, and as good a start as the Festival could hope for. If half the upcoming shows maintain this standard, this will be the best Festival in two decades.