For many years the back pages of newspapers and comics featured advertisements for all kinds of mail order marvels and mysteries. One such device was the Seebackroscope alleged to help you to look backwards. In these days where there seems to be strong desire to return to halcyon days of Britishness perhaps it will re-emerge. Looking back sixty years or more may not always be as nice as we would wish, these were the days of polio, rickets and rationing. One memory from this time is worth cherishing, however. The magnificent D’Oyly Carte company presented the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan for a century in popular style with a permanent company, and many in the Norwich audience will remember visits of the company to Norwich Theatre Royal with deserved affection. The original D’Oyly Carte company disbanded in 1982, although it has recently been revived. 
In 1994 the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company stepped into the limelight to continue the tradition of these popular productions, and they are in Norwich this week. Having seen the joyful and light-hearted Mikado they presented on Thursday it was fascinating to see the same company take on The Pirates of Penzance of Friday evening. They carry the D’Oyly Carte tradition of musical quality but they add greatly to the stagecraft required to bring the stories to life.
‘Pirates’ probably packs in more memorable songs than any of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas and even the most respectful of audience members may struggle to avoid joining in. This capable company, however, need no help, their singing and musicianship are of the highest standard. When Emma Walsh as Mabel performed the aria ‘Poor Wand’ring One’ the entire audience were frozen in delight at her skill and powerful delivery, and in immediate sympathy with the love-struck Frederic (Anthony Flaum) who has fallen head over heels in love with Mabel, most beautiful of Major-General Stanley’s eleven daughters. Anthony gives an energetic, elegant and completely convincing performance as the romantic lead Frederic, a young man accidentally apprenticed to the Pirates (rather than the pilots) and possessed of an overwhelming sense of duty. 
Frederic’s sense of duty means that while his loyalty to the pirate band is total while he is indentured it must be reversed when his apprenticeship ends on his 21st birthday, and he must then follow his sense of duty to ensure the arrest and conviction of his former pirate mates. He makes this plain to the Pirate King, played with a rather delicate but decidedly swashbuckling manliness by Toby Stafford-Allen, and to his former nursemaid Ruth, who having mistakenly placed Frederic in this criminal apprenticeship devotedly follows him into the business of brigandry. Ruth (Mae Heydorn) as a sprightly 47 year-old also harbours a very strong desire to marry Frederic. Mezzo-soprano Mae Heydorn handles the difficult balance required to play the key role of Ruth who is part pirate girl, part devoted nurse and part unrequited amour to Frederic. The clarity of her delivery is important for the audience to grasp the finer detail of the ‘Pirates’ plot and Mae is eloquence personified.
As in the other famous Gilbert and Sullivan operettas the glue that holds the whole ensemble together is the ‘patter’ song deliverer, written originally to suit the prodigious skills of actor and singer George Grossmith. In ‘The Pirates’ this falls to Major-General Stanley, the ‘very model of a modern Major-General’ and in this company that means another charming and engaging performance by Richard Gauntlett. This is a completely different character from last night’s role as Koko in The Mikado, which allows great freedom for comedic extension. The Major General carries the appropriate level of gravitas that befits his military and parental status, but Richard again manages to take the interpretation of the character towards the edge of its safe limits while making the tongue-twisting skill required for ‘I am the very model’ look deceptively easy. His physical depiction of a man troubled by age but trained to maintain a  military bearing at all times was just right.
From the first performance in New York in December 1879 The Pirates of Penzance has remained an audience favourite, and this accomplished production is helping to bring a new generation of fans to the enduring charm of Gilbert and Sullivan. While Saturday marks the end of this particular tour I am confident that they will be filling the Theatre Royal again soon. Never mind looking back, this little bit of Britishness is always worth looking forward to.
Read our review of The Mikado here:
© Julian Swainson 2017

The National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company, The Mikado, Thursday September  14, 7.30pm; Pirates of Penzance, Friday September 15, 7.30pm; HMS Pinafore, Saturday September 16, 2.30pm & 7.30pm. Tickets £8-£35. Dementia-friendly captioned concert, Friday September 15, 2pm. Tickets £17. Discounts for Friends. Over 60s & Groups.  BOX OFFICE 01603 630000.  For more info or to BOOK ONLINE