An animal attraction for daft zoo comedy

Leading lady of Dore Gilbert and Sullivan Society's  The Zoo, Alex Hunt,  in the Bear Pit at Sheffield's Botanical Gardens
Leading lady of Dore Gilbert and Sullivan Society's The Zoo, Alex Hunt, in the Bear Pit at Sheffield's Botanical Gardens

AS Dore Gilbert and Sullivan Society set sail with their revival of G&S favourite HMS Pinafore, they have a rather unusual passenger on board.

For as well as presenting the much-loved tale of naval mistaken identity on the high seas, the society is also staging a revival of the much lesser known musical comedy The Zoo.

This is Sullivan without Gilbert – the libretto on this occasion was provided by one Bolton Rowe, which was actually the pen name of author BC Stephenson.

After an initial run at London’s Haymarket Theatre in 1875 and a couple of revivals in the years following, the piece remained forgotten until 1966, when it was finally rediscovered and brought back to the public’s attention, usually – as in the case of this Dore revival – as a curtain raiser to a more familiar and popular work from the Savoy Opera repertoire.

Like the more famous piece it accompanies, it’s a farcical comedy – a daft story of thwarted love set in a zoo and a deserted bear pit and involving all the usual complications that became the norm for theatre at the time.

If it’s not as famous as the legendary Pinafore that’s simply because it isn’t in the same league but Dore Musical director Paul Wright insists that, nevertheless, it is a work that fans of the era’s musical output should find fascinating – and at little more than 30 minutes long it’s hardly taxing.

“It’s not Sullivan’s greatest music but, that said, it is Sullivan and quite recognizably so,” says Paul. “It’s a filler, a traditional curtain raiser in the style of Trial By Jury or Cox and Box and, because it is so much less familiar, it should prove interesting to our audience.”

Graham Weston, the director who makes his Dore debut with this unusual double bill, feels that the lesser piece should at last prove an interesting curiosity.

“It’s going to be new to most people I would imagine,” he says. “The thing to remember is that a piece like The Zoo is not meant to be taken seriously. – it’s a little bit of fun.

“It has some good parts for the principals and there’s also some good work for the chorus.

“We’re updating it slightly and setting it in the Edwardian era but, other than that, we’ll be playing it straight.”

And much the same could be said of HMS Pinafore, which, Graham says, will be played in the usual Dore style of remaining true to the spirit of the original.

“It’s a fairly traditional production but not staid and boring, I hope,” he laughs.

“Even though we are taking a traditional approach I like to keep things very busy and moving along and I’ll be putting some bits in to keep things lively - especially for the chorus.”

HMS Pinafore and The Zoo are on stage at Sheffield University Drama Studio from April 12 to 16. Tickets are available now on 01246 416364.