The Pirates of Penzance
Reviewed – 12th December 2020
“in true buccaneering style, the company have grabbed the opportunity to plunder the West End”
It is worth remembering what a lasting impact the nineteenth century impresario, Richard D’Oyly Carte, had on London’s theatreland. Having brought Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert together he built the Savoy Theatre in order to stage their works. Later, in an attempt to establish more serious opera, Carte built the Royal English Opera House; which is now known as the Palace Theatre. Although it staged Arthur Sullivan’s “Ivanhoe”, none of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas ever made it onto the grand stage.
Sasha Regan’s all male “Pirates of Penzance” has enjoyed success for a decade now in the UK and Australia, its journey briefly interrupted by the pandemic. But in true buccaneering style, the company have grabbed the opportunity to plunder the West End, while many theatres are still sleeping, and seize the accolade of presenting the first Gilbert and Sullivan work to play in D’Oyly Carte’s purpose-built theatre. And it deserves it.
The company don’t take the stage by storm. Instead, they use the weapons of wit, joy, irreverence, humour and harmony. It is perhaps one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most accessible comic operas, containing some of Sullivan’s most recognised music. Gilbert’s libretto has a simplicity and clarity which matches Regan’s staging. What will lodge in the memory for a long time is how the production transports you to a bygone era. The space is vast, even by West End standards, but the cast fill it completely with a stripped back set, one piano, a bunch of finely tuned singers, and not a single microphone between them. Nothing is forced either. Musical Director Richard Baker’s piano notes and arpeggios float across the auditorium carrying the voices with them to the far corners of the theatre. Lizzi Gee’s superb choreography may have been devised with smaller spaces in mind, but the physicality of the ensemble make no apologies and they pull it off.
Set during Queen Victoria’s reign on the coast of Cornwall, the story concerns the dutiful and soft-hearted Frederic who, having reached his twenty-first year has been released from his apprenticeship to a band of equally benevolent pirates. He promptly falls in love with Mabel, the daughter of the very model of a modern Major-General. Yet he soon learns that he was born on the twenty-ninth of February, so only has a birthday every four years. Which makes him only five years old, meaning he has another sixty years to serve. What ensues is a gorgeous romp through the themes of courage, duty and honour.
Alan Richardson, as Mabel, stuns us with his soaring falsetto. But it is unfair to single him out, the entire ensemble is pitch perfect, from bass through to soprano. It is credit to the cast that at no point does it really occur to us that we are watching men dressed as women. There is plenty of chest and facial hair on view, but such are the nuances, mannerisms and finesse of the cast, we are convinced. This is not high camp; it is not drag; it is character acting at its finest. Tom Senior’s Frederic is just as convincing, and you believe in the chemistry between the actors. Leon Craig’s hapless nurse, Ruth, is a master of comedy, vying for the laughs with David McKechnie’s Major-General. The accolades, though, belong to the entire team and given space they would all receive a special mention.
The continued success of the all-male “Pirates of Penzance” is undoubtedly on dry land; and this stunning production feels completely at home in the West End. Yes, maybe it might not have made it there in normal times (though I like to think it would), but we can certainly hoist the flag to celebrate one of the most delightful, innovative, funny and musically rich interpretations of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Danny Kaan
The Pirates of Penzance
Palace Theatre until 13th December
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