Jon English in Pirates of Penzance: the purest expression of Australia's theatrical spirit

Jon English was a true legend of Australian rock in the 1970s and ’80s, with hits including Hollywood Seven, Turn the Page and Six Ribbons. But his career extended well beyond that, with Award-winning TV roles in Against the Wind and All Together Now, and work in musical theatre, starting with the show which made him famous at just 23, Jesus Christ Superstar.

With news coming in this morning that English has died, aged 66, the Australian entertainment industry has lost a true original.

I think a lot of Australians have relationships with different parts of his career: my mother was a big fan of his performance as Judas in the original Australian production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The cast recording became one of the first records she ever bought and, to this day, she can recite the musical back-to-front, despite being particularly awful with lyrics.

And that production itself was a notable moment in Australian musical theatre history: it was an original version of the musical, dreamed up by Australian director Jim Sharman and Australian designer Brian Thomson, who also helmed the West End production and would, the following year, bring The Rocky Horror Show to the stage.

In the years following, English cemented his status as a popular singer and in 1984 played the Pirate King in a local version of Joseph Papp’s Broadway production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, opening the Arts Centre Melbourne. 

But my Jon English moment came ten years later, when he returned to Pirates in a new production created for Australian audiences by director Craig Shaeffer and a cast which included Simon Gallaher and Australian musical theatre legend Toni Lamond.

If Papp had used pruning shears to trim things back and make Pirates more entertaining for a modern audience, the homegrown 1994 production took a hacksaw to Gilbert and Sullivan’s light, but very funny operetta.

English was the leader of this rowdy gang, swinging on ropes, executing physical gag after physical gag, arguing with the conductor, and constantly breaking the fourth wall to play up to the audience. His catch phrase, just when the crowd was going wild with applause — “I haven’t finished yet!” — remains quotable to this day.

How appropriate that Australian artists took the most British part of the British culture we inherited at colonisation and adapted it into something bawdy, rocking, and deliciously rude. Australian artists had been doing that for decades — and it continues today — but Schaeffer and his cast brought Australia’s music hall and vaudeville traditions into operetta.

It was entirely entirely appropriate that Toni Lamond, who was part of a line of Australian vaudeville performers and one of the first local stars to be allowed to lead a major musical, should be in this production.

My parents took me to see Pirates when I was just four, and the experience of climbing the stairs to the dress circle and passing program sellers is still vividly in my mind. It was the first live performance I’d ever seen, and I can’t be sure if I would have devoted my professional life to theatre if I’d had a different formative experience.

When the production was broadcast on the ABC a few months later, I taped it and watched that video almost weekly for several years. It still surprises me how many Australians who were born in the late ’80s or early ’90s, and are now involved in musical theatre in some way, have the same experience.

Watching English and his fellow cast mates taught me many things. It taught me the rules of theatre, how those rules can be broken, and how comedic timing and emphasis work to keep an audience rolling in the aisles.

I still bring out the DVD (the video tape long since broke) every year or two, and earlier this year watched it with another Sydney theatre critic, who also grew up with these Pirates.

English’s career went on following Pirates. He continued to tour with his band, appear in other musicals and revise and promote his rock musical Paris. But it’s as the purple-panted Pirate King that he will be best remembered by my generation.

That production was silly, broad, and juvenile, but it somehow still represents everything I want Australian theatre to be and informs my practice as a theatre critic. I want theatre to be lively, of the people and generous. And I want us to throw reverence out the window when we approach the classics and ruthlessly reinvent until we’ve got something that speaks as clearly as possible to its audience. And I want us to constantly ask why we we continue staging European classics and answer that question (even if it’s just “because it will be freaking hilarious”).

So farewell to the true Pirate King. Every time I saw you perform, you were always extraordinarily generous to your audience. But through that generosity, coupled with your wit and unruliness, you gave Australian theatre and Australian culture an unexpectedly vibrant way of expressing itself.

3 responses to “Jon English in Pirates of Penzance: the purest expression of Australia's theatrical spirit

  1. Ben, thanks for the tribute. I was a follower from my own childhood in the 70s, and was lucky enough to see him perform live many times, including the Pirates, which was an incredibly memorable event. He was a lot of things to a lot of people, but I know the Pirate king is also what my son remembers most about Jon, and I LOVE that you have included With Catlike Tread.
    No matter whether he is here or in spirit, ‘He hasn’t finished yet!’

  2. Echo your thoughts! I remember being in awe as I watched the pirate king swing from a rope into the audience and then arguing with my brothers for the next 5 years over whether the usher ladies knew he was going to do it or not.

  3. Ben, that’s a heartfelt, generous and moving tribute to a real star. I played electric bass in the orchestra in an iteration of that ’84 version of Pirates – it actually sounds very similar to the ’94 version you describe. Bronhill was in it and Jon chewed the scenery and dominated every performance. One saturday matinee in brisbane, a few of us, including Jon, were watching the lead up to a boxing match on the TV set in the green room. I think it was Mike Tyson’s first fight, against Hector Mercedes. I’m not a boxing fan at all, but Jon was all fired up about it and, like everything he did, it was infectious. Unfortunately, the band had to go in and start the show before the fight started, but Jon stayed on because his first entrance was some time into Act 1. When he came on stage, he blew the audience away with the 1st number (as always) and then walked downstage above the orchestra pit to the side where I was sitting, put his hand over his body mic and leaned down and stage-whispered at me “Tyson won, knock out in the 1st round”. Giving him that role was an inspired piece of casting.

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