As usual with these Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas, the plot of The Pirates of Penzance is wafer-thin, and when we learn that the initial premise revolves around a child, Frederic, being mistakenly apprenticed as a pirate by his nurse who thought he would be trained as a pilot, there's little chance that the story will detain the rational mind. Especially when the circumstance of our hero's being born on 29th February in a leap year is a crucial plot point in his desire to escape the curse of the eyepatch and the Jolly Roger.....
But did the large audience packed into Eynsham church on a warmish July night care one iota? They did not. What they did mind about, of course, was that Opera Anywhere would do full justice to the wit of the libretto, to the paradoxes in character - a pusillanimous police sergeant (the imposing Mark Horner, in Act II comically shoehorned into a barrel having set the brook a-gurgling in his When a felon's not engaged in his employment set-piece), a pirate king with scruples (the part demands and here got a strong baritone from the excellent Dario Dugandzic), a progressive major-general, full of book-learned theory - and of course to the famous tunes. Well, they did. Every man and woman of them gave it both barrels of a piratical blunderbuss, and the church rocked with energy and fun.
Guy Withers was youthfully charming as the initially gullible and always ethical Frederic, with a pleasing tenor voice in his duets with Ruth and Mabel, and Vanessa Woodward a dim and dentally-challenged Ruth the skivvy. Company supremo Mike Woodward coped dexterously with his famously tongue-twisting patter in I am the very model... and it was typical of his warm approach that he should involve my 9-year-old neighbour in his performance. I especially appreciated the David Bowie-lookalike William Paul, both as a cross-dressing scarecrow of a daughter and athletic pirate lieutenant - when he staggered forward with the weight of his chief on his shoulders I wanted to jump up and help him. Sian Millett as one of the Major-General's daughters caught the attention with her strong mezzo- voice and stage presence.
As with The Mikado at Waterperry Gardens which I reviewed last year, in true aesthetic terms the star here was Helen Winter. Not only did she direct the stage action with imaginative management of the scant resources - small cast, fairly cramped church space, necessarily limited scenery and props - but as the plucky Mabel her soprano voice was powerful yet delicate, and she delivered the coloratura of her Poor wand'ring one solo with smiling, insouciant ease, voice soaring upwards to the four top corners of the nave, the lurking spiders there all a-tremble.