A Cheerful End to Nairobi’s Musical Theatre Season
(This review appeared in The EastAfrican 23-29 January 2012 under the title “Pirates” Steals Theatregoers Hearts”)
A little while after Pirates of Penzance premiered at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York City on 31 December 1879, Arthur Sullivan(1842–1900), who composed the music, wrote in a letter to his mother, “The libretto is ingenious, clever, wonderfully funny in parts, and sometimes brilliant in dialogue – beautifully written for music, as is all Gilbert does,” referring to Sir William Schwenck Gilbert (1836 – 1911), who wrote the libretto.
If I said anything else about this comic opera, I would be merely paraphrasing Sullivan. It has been, as Sullivan predicted, one of the most popular theatre productions in the history of musical theatre, and was performed by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company for a century. Richard D’Oyly Carte built the Savoy theatre in London where most Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas were staged and played an influential role in the development of modern musical theatre.
Pirates has been just as popular with the Nairobi audience and many may remember it from Saint Mary’s Fr Hogan’s repertoire.
On 7th January, the curtains fell on Pirates of Nairobi Dam at Phoenix Theatre marking, as has tended to be the custom, the end of the musical theatre season in Nairobi and I managed to catch the second-last show. The production, adapted and directed by George Mungai with Kaz as the musical director, run from 25th November and closed on 18th December for the Christmas break, re-opening on 4th January, giving Phoenix the badge of staging the longest-running musicals, as all others in Nairobi tend to run for one or two weekends in November and December. Unless the trend changes, we will see no more musicals by professional companies until late November.
Set on the edge of Nairobi Dam instead of a rocky sea-shore on the coast of Cornwall, the play opens with a drinking party to celebrate the birthday of Frederick (Martin Githinji) who, having turned 21, has ended his apprenticeship and is now a ‘full blown member’ of the gang of pirates.
He had been mistakenly recruited into the group by his nanny, Ruth (Margaret Karanja), who, being unable to distinguish Rs from Ls thought Frederick’s father had said “take and bind the promising boy apprentice to a pirate” instead of “pilot”.
Having dutifully ended his apprenticeship, he announces he will leave the gang, of whom, individually, he loves with “all with affection unspeakable” but collectively, he “looks upon with a disgust that amounts to absolute detestation” and because of his sense of duty, he will feel “bound to devote himself heart and soul their extermination.”
Thus, Ruth and the Pirate King (Carter Kavuti), in a cunning ploy to keep him in the gang, argue by what they call “a most ingenious paradox” that since he was born 29th February, technically, he has had only four birthdays and thus his contract will expire after sixty-three years. Always bound by duty, (which is why the play is also known as The Slave of Duty) he goes back to the gang, dashing his hopes of marrying Mabel (Alison Nyawira) who he has just met and forcing him to abandon his plans of ‘exterminating’ the pirates with the police force. The pirates then attack the police and defeat them but the police chief triumphs when he tells them to surrender “in the name of Kibaki” (Queen Victoria in the original) and they oblige because “with all their faults, they love Ubaks, they love The Baks, the love Baba Jimmy.”
The humour in the play is heightened by Mungai’s adaptation of the songs to a Kenyan context in this manner. The very popular introductory song by the memorable character of Major-General Stanley, (Joe Kinyua) I’m the very model of a modern major-general– which is characteristic of comic opera in its quick tempo and rapid succession of rhymes- has words cleverly substituted so that instead of “I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical, from Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical”, for example, he sings, “I know the price of unga and I quote the price historical, from Bungoma to Garissa, in order categorical”.
It was a lively uplifting production, the singing being particularly hearty and jovial without any devices to amplify their voices- which is as it should be- and being accompanied solely by Mungai on the keyboard.
The set was simple and effective though it allowed for no change of scene to depict the ruined chapel in which the major-general is found in a pensive mood in act II. All in all, it was a cheerful ‘end of season’ for those who love musical theatre.
© Anne Manyara 2011