For years now (and indeed again next season) ENO has relied on Jonathan Miller's venerable Mikado as a reliable revival. How the management must have hoped that hiring Mike Leigh on the back of Topsy-Turvy to direct Pirates of Penzance would furnish them with an alternative such show. But it was not to be.
Let us start, however, with the positives. This is a pretty good show musically. There are no weak links in that department among the soloists and two stand-out performances from Joshua Bloom as the Pirate King and Claudia Boyle as Mabel. It is perhaps no coincidence that those two are also the most successful individuals in transcending Leigh's lifeless production. Among the rest Robert Murray sings well as Frederic, but lacks stage presence, and all the chemistry in their partnership comes from Boyle. Andrew Shore hams it up as the Major-General – fine in theory in this rep, but it needs to be a bit more tongue in cheek. There were flashes of promising presence from Alexander Robin Bloom's Samuel, Soraya Mafi's Edith and Lydia Marchione's Isabel – a more talented director could have made something of them all, Leigh pretty completely fails. The singing and playing of chorus and orchestra under the direction of David Parry is of a good standard, but I couldn't help feeling in places (the Act 2 double chorus and Hail Poetry are obvious examples) that the chorus needed more vocal weight.
But the big problem with this show is Mike Leigh's direction, or, frankly, lack of it. For the vast majority of the evening people simply stand and deliver their parts. There's sadly insufficient interaction between the principals and as for the chorus I found myself increasingly wondering whether they had been given any direction at all. Those performers who are able to be just that bit larger than life, without carrying it too far, are able to lift some scenes, but otherwise it just feels dull and lifeless. Nowhere is this more the case than in the big musical numbers which cry out for activity. Francesca Jaynes is credited as choreographer, there is for most of the evening little evidence of her having actually performed that role. Musical number after musical number is delivered by groups of people staring straight out at you and hardly moving. It drove this audience member, who recalled the joyous liveliness of many an amateur production of this repertoire, increasingly to despair.
Oh, and then there's the set (by Alison Chitty), or lack of it – which looked to me like another piece of evidence for the money worries the company keeps denying it has. A couple of brightly painted flats (which occasionally open and close), two sets of stairs, and one portrait of Queen Victoria (inexplicably applauded by the audience) is about your lot. The stage area is frequently reduced in a manner which recalled the company's disastrous Kismet, and led me to conclude that Leigh and his choreographer were doing so to disguise the fact that they had so little idea what to do with the company when it was on stage.
Around me at the end there was warm applause. Reviews have been kind. I cannot escape the feeling that if this had been staged by a director less well known than Leigh it would have met with much less sympathy. For me it committed the cardinal theatrical sin of being boring. It is not unrevivable, but it doesn't deserve to be.