Stage

Pirates of Penzance – Summer Youth Production at Grand Opera House

The Pirate King (Robbie McMinn) in action. Picture by Simon Graham
Anne Hailes

Pirates of Penzance

Summer Youth Production at Grand Opera House

I'M a great devotee of Gilbert and Sullivan, I was in the chorus of the Mikado when I was 15 and I'd queue for the gods when the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company brought these shows to the Grand Opera House.

Then, last weekend, I was sitting in the stalls amongst a very young audience, middle-aged parents and excited grannies, families buzzing to see their boys and girls play out one of WS Gilbert (lyrics) and Sir Arthur Sullivan's (music) masterpieces.

The lights dim, and under the baton of musician director Wilson Shields, the orchestra strike up and director Tony Finnegan's production of Pirates of Penzance gets underway.

In an inventive twist, the action begins in the bedroom of WS Gilbert on the eve of his 12th birthday: his nanny is reading him a bedtime story, Treasure Island, and as he slips off to sleep, his fantastical dream begins.

The plot is as complex as you wish, all G&S comic operas were highly political for the time, over 140 years ago. This production is an almost straightforward love story, it's full of songs that are well known and come as a lovely surprise as the story unfolds, Poor Wandering One, With Cat Like Tread, Tarantula Tarantula and the totally mesmerising I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General.

This number brought the house down and how 17-year-old Jackson Allen from Belfast Boys Model got his tongue round the lyrics in breathtaking speed, none of us know.

When he is challenged by the Pirate King, Robbie McMinn (16) of Carrickfergus Grammar School, to sing it even faster, we're on the edge of our seats: surely he'll stumble or dry up or give up?

But no, Jackson was word perfect at 90 miles an hour. This young man is a natural and his comic timing is perfection. But then, this production is perfection.

The two lovers, soprano Mabel and Frederic are played by Lucia McLaughlin, a 17-year-old Victoria College pupil, and Richard Collins (21) from Cookstown. Their voices blend and their budding relationship grows, Frederic's swagger is very mature and Mabel's voice soars to the rafters.

Every cast member plays their part to the full – how Finnegan has brought over 175 teenagers, and even younger, to this pitch of perfection is amazing. Rebecca Leonard's choreography, sound, lighting, costume design, and cast and stage crew working as a unit, all underpinned by a confident well tuned orchestra – the majority of them Youth Orchestra members – plus the volunteers and the chaperones who all played a part.

The sadness is that this production ran for only three nights, as it could fill the Grand Opera House for weeks: it will, however, be talked about for weeks to come and be an ever-lasting memory for all those involved.

Anyone who has doubts about the youth of today should experience shows like this and there are many of them to enjoy in Northern Ireland. Commitment, energy, enthusiasm and above all, professionalism.

Even when they were required to fill the aisles as they sang, watching the young faces was a joy, each totally in character.

The first act moves from young Gilbert's bedroom to the pirate ship and the second act is set in a bright colourful graveyard. Above are myriads of stars twinkling, there must have been well over 200 – one for each of those who gave us a night to remember.

Here's to next year's Summer Youth production.