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About A Week: Primary School Pirates

This week a Yorkshire village school staged a performane of Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance in a historic concert hall.

The International Gilbert and Sullivan Society hope many other British schools will now follow the lead given by Lepton Church of England Primary School.

Peter Hinchliffe was enchanted by the Lepton Primary stage stars.

What’s this? A hundred and more primary school children performing the full-length version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic comic opera The Pirates of Penzance?

Spare me, please! Eight-, nine-, ten-year-olds, dressed up as pirates, policemen and pretty maids. All those shrill voices. All that fidgeting and fiddling on stage.

I went in trepidation to Lepton Church of England Primary School’s production of The Pirates this week, half-expecting to be embarrassed. Two or three dozen mums and dads, there to see little Sally and tow-headed Paul in fancy dress. Kids forgetting their lines, shambling about the stage, grinning repeatedly at the audience…

Well… Huddersfield Town Hall was packed out for the show. Not a spare seat. The Town Hall has hosted an abundance of good music making over the last 139 years.
Yehudi Menuhin played his fiddle there. Sir Malcom Sargent conducted the famous Huddersfield Choral Society in some of the best performances ever of Handel’s Messiah. Polish composer Henryk Gorecki led a performance of his famous Third Symphony.

And now, the turn of the young children of Lepton to make the Town Hall’s rafters ring. Ring they did, right tunefully.

Adult performers appeared in the leading roles, but the children were the show-stealers.

Wednesday’s thrilling event – yes, thrilling – was inspired and guided by the deputy head of Lepton school, Helen Lever. a Gilbert and Sullivan performer and award winner at the annual G&S festival which is held in Buxton, Derbyshire.

Helen’s initiative was sponsored by the International Gilbert and Sullivan Association. Members of the G&S Festival team visited Lepton School once a week to teach the musical side of the show and the staging of it.

“G&S is a great way to get children interested in music and theatre,’’ said Helen. “It has colour, humour and strong melodies. Pupils who did not wish to perform were able to contribute in other vital areas, such as costumes, scenery, publicity and front of the house.’’

Those costumes, many of them made by the mothers of the young opera stars, were as colourful and imaginative as every good G&S production demands.

The Pirates of Penzance was first performed on December 30, 1879, in the Bijou Theatre, Paignton, Devon. This perfunctory production was merely to establish copyright of the operetta in the UK.

The grand launch of Pirates was on the following night, December 31, 1879, in New York. Audience and newspaper reviewers loved it.

The New York Herald: “The opera was received with marked approval and made a palpable hit. The opera is beautifully and richly costumed and set upon the stage. The set in the second act was well worthy the prompt acknowledgment it received.’’

The New York Sun: “Its success with the audience was instantaneous. The performance was constantly stopped by the laughter and applause that attended the humorous parts.’’

There was laughter galore in Huddersfield Town Hall on Wednesday evening. And prolonged applause after each song and every chorus. Applause which may, for the first few minutes of the show, have arisen from amazement that children of this age could be so disciplined and professional. But applause which quickly stemmed from a delight in the polished performances, irregardless of the ages of those entertaining us.

The children who took part in this wonderful, zestful performance of the Pirates of Penzance will remember the night for the rest of their lives.

So shall I.

And I am sure that Sir Arthur Sullivan and Sir William Gilbert would have had happy smiles on their faces had they been in the audience.

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